Every first week of May since 1985 we have celebrated Public Service Recognition Week, honoring those who serve our Nation at the federal, state, local, and tribal level. The ABA Administrative Law Section has decided to commission a month-long series to honor public servants who have made a different in our lives and country. If you’d like to contribute to this series, we’re accepting submissions throughout the month of May (just email me).
I thought I’d get us started with a tribute to a dear mentor of mine: Robert Kopp. Robert was the Director of the Civil Appellate Staff at the U.S. Department of Justice when I joined the staff just a year out of law school. He is the quintessential public servant. He joined the Justice Department as a career appellate attorney in 1966, and he served admirably there for 45 years until he retired in December 2011. In 1981, he became the Director of the Civil Appellate Staff, and he led that office for three decades!
Robert was a masterful leader. I still remember our first meeting at the start of my service at the Justice Department. He asked me about my interests, career goals, and working style. He patiently listened, explained the staff’s history and practices, and gave advice on how I could succeed in the office. During my first few months, he ensured I was assigned cases with several different supervising attorneys so that I could learn from the greats in the office, such as Alisa Klein, Doug Letter, and Mark Stern—to name just a few. He also made sure that I got a couple oral arguments early in my time in the office.
I experienced Robert’s kindness firsthand. In one of my first cases, I had to enter mediation over a lawsuit brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act. I was just a year out of law school, and this was my first real-world mediation. Working in a confidential process with a skilled circuit mediator, opposing counsel and I appeared to reach an agreement in principle to resolve the dispute on appeal.
When I circulated the Justice Department’s proposed agreement, however, opposing counsel objected to some of the standard terms for government settlements. He then filed a motion to compel settlement to force the dollar-amount settlement with no additional terms or conditions. We responded by noting that a line attorney at the Justice Department, by statute and regulation, cannot bind the federal government. For this settlement amount, the Attorney General had delegated that settlement authority to Civil Appellate Staff Director, and Director Kopp had not yet approved any settlement in this appeal.
This response did not end the matter. Instead, the circuit court granted opposing counsel’s request to depose both me and Director Kopp. I was horrified. Not only did I have to now be deposed for the first time in my life, but I had somehow gotten my boss deposed as well. Many attorneys in the office gently roasted me; apparently this was a historic achievement in the office, as the director had never before been ordered deposed.
But Robert did not join the roast. With all his experience and empathy, he knew I was struggling. He dropped by my office to make sure I was okay and to underscore that this wasn’t a big deal. He reiterated that it wasn’t my fault, and that I had done everything right. And he thanked me for my hard work and attention to detail. He then made sure I was prepared for my deposition.
Our depositions went fine, and the court ultimately rejected opposing counsel’s motion to compel settlement. But the lessons I learned from Robert went far beyond the resolution of that motion. In Robert, I met a public servant with decades of experience who graciously and compassionately led an office of brilliant appellate litigators for three decades. Robert cared so deeply about getting it right and serving the public. And he also worked hard to ensure that the lawyers in the office—and particularly the younger lawyers—grew into the best lawyers, public servants, and human beings they could possibly become. Sometimes that meant creating space for rookie mistakes, and then redoubling with support and kindness. And at least once in his career that meant being deposed for the team.
A couple years after his retirement, Robert agreed to do an extensive oral history on his life and career for the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. At the end of the ninth and final day of interviews, Judith Feigin, the interviewer, asked Robert what advice he had for law students and young lawyers today. In his typical humble style, he responded:
That’s a very difficult question, which could require a whole new set of chapters given all the changes that are taking place in both the legal profession and in the government. I think I was extraordinarily lucky in how my career worked out. I wasn’t at the very top of the class, but I did well enough to be very competitive in terms of jobs that I applied for. I wasn’t interested in trial litigation and so when an offer from the Appellate Staff came to me, I leaped at the opportunity to be an appellate lawyer, and the more I stayed in that office, the more convinced I was that I was an appellate lawyer, that I wasn’t a trial lawyer, and through a long career which was supported by a lot of good luck and breaks falling in the right way, I was able to have a very successful and exciting career.
How that relates to advice to people just entering the legal profession today is a very difficult question. To some extent, no matter how much you prepare in law school for what’s down the road and what you intend to do as a lawyer, life isn’t going to turn out the way you expect it to, and fate is going to intervene. In my case I think basically what I feel was I positioned myself in such a way in terms of career development and working within the structure of the Appellate Staff and the Civil Division that I got a few lucky bounces and my legal career worked out better than I ever anticipated that it could. . . .
Thank you, Robert, for nearly a half century of government service. You are an inspiration and a standard bearer for public service. You have had a profound impact on my career and my commitment to public service.
And thanks to the countless other government lawyers within and without the ABA AdLaw Section who have dedicated their lives to the public interest. This Section exists in part to celebrate your service and share your expertise and inspiration with the broader administrative law and regulatory practice community.
This post is part of the ABA Administrative Law Section Series Celebrating Public Service; all the posts in the series are collected here. This post is a modified version of the author’s Chair Column in the forthcoming Spring 2021 issue of the Administrative and Regulatory Law News.