Meet Jeffrey Lesk, managing partner at Nixon Peabody in Washington, DC. Below, he discusses the interactions between public and private entities, and provides insights on effective lawyering to practitioners and law students.
1. Where do you work now and what led you to a career in law?
I’m the Managing Partner of the Nixon Peabody DC office – and I head the firm’s national government-assisted community development financing group. As trite as it sounds, when I was in college (and before), I knew I wanted to do something that would in some way leave a mark, make a difference, contribute to something important. Honestly – I wasn’t exactly sure what lawyers did (and I certainly didn’t realize the broad array of ways to practice law), but I sensed that a legal degree would give me a lot more options to find ways to accomplish this goal.
2. What other experiences with administrative or regulatory law have you had?
I started my legal career in the Office of General Counsel at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. In my five years there, I was lucky to have had two distinct positions that provided different experiences that opened my eyes to a much broader number of ways to practice administrative and regulatory law.
The first was a position as a staff attorney, where my clients were HUD programs. That was in most ways a traditional in-house government regulatory attorney position. Right off the bat I learned to work with complex statutes and regulations – and even had input in drafting regulations. I also had the opportunity to apply the law to “real world” inquiries from program staff and field attorneys through the opinion-writing process. That really gave me a feel for “applied” administrative and regulatory law – something that has carried through my entire legal career.
For my second HUD lawyer position, I was basically recruited by one of my clients (the Urban Development Action Grant program) to be an in-house program attorney. That’s code for “I did deals.” Even better, I did deals in partnership with the private sector. That was a great eye-opener and provided a lot of opportunities.
3. How did you become interested in pursuing a career in administrative law?
It grew from my general interest in community development, urban planning and the related social programs. I saw that governmental programs, regulations and oversight provided both hurdles and incentives for this type of development. As anyone in the field knows, the overlapping rules and regulations are really complex, and I was drawn to practicing law in a way that I thought had most potential to put it all together, solve problems and, in a way, bring order out of chaos. But most of all, I thought practicing administrative and regulatory law would put me a position to ultimately have a high level of understanding of the ins and outs of how the government could facilitate the types of projects and programs I wanted to work with.
4. Do you have any advice about “best practices” for attorneys, particularly for those whose work requires frequent interaction with government agencies?
I really encourage attorneys working with government agencies to focus on the purposes and policies behind the programs and agencies. One of the basic elements of practicing law is to understand the motivations of the “other side.” And yet when we deal with government agencies we often forget the policy piece – we jump right to the particulars of the law and (for transactional lawyers) the mechanics of getting deals done. For me, understanding policy not only provides an advantage in legal practice, it also makes for a much richer, more complete understanding – which I think contributes to being a better, more effective lawyer. And it opens doors to some very complex, interesting, sophisticated legal work – great practitioners who understand policy make effective contributors in producing highly complex, high-impact, innovative projects.
5. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing administrative law practitioners?
For administrative/regulatory law practitioners who have transactional practices, “doing deals” generally requires dealing with tight timeframes, moving targets and numerous surprises along the way. On the other hand, government programs and administrative procedures generally are focused on consistency, process and more linear movement. As citizens, that’s what we expect and value, but a legal practitioner, it’s challenging to reconcile those often-conflicting paradigms and find ways to work through them. But it’s also really rewarding – especially when you’re doing deals that have positive social impact.
6. Your office has been involved in developing a number of public-private partnerships. Would you describe the role that attorneys play in facilitating these partnerships and give an example of one project with which you were involved?
Public-Private Partnerships have been the primary focus of my legal career, both in the public and private sectors. The role of attorneys – particularly attorneys with regulatory and administrative law background – can be crucial. What I love about them most is that each side really needs the other, but they often view the world through different lenses. Having had a leg in both camps helps my ability to explain to both public and private partners what I see as the motivations, limitations, goals and concerns of the other side. Deep legal knowledge and strong technical skills are critical for any good lawyer, but the added value often comes from being a problem-solver, facilitator and translator. The best examples are the numerous Affordable Housing finance programs I’ve put together, especially those that involve green development and renewable energy – they involve (from numerous governmental agencies) public sector programs, laws, regulations and oversight to protect the public financial resources provided to private (non-profit and for-profit) developers, lenders and investors. The private sector brings knowledge and experience in real estate development, financing, underwriting and asset management – but they’ve got to do it right or risk serious legal and financial consequences. I sit in the middle of all of this – making sure that the public requirements are complied with and that the private parties perform. At the end of the day, thousands of units of well-developed and operated housing are provided by the private sector in a way that fulfills the social goals of the public sector.
7. For law students or new attorneys considering a career in administrative law, what do you think would be a good way of familiarizing themselves with the field?
I was lucky to have two summer internships during law school that drew me deep in to administrative law. It was a great way to test the waters, and both gave broad exposure and surprising responsibilities right off the bat. I’d really recommend that approach – and DC in particular has great options in the government, as well as with trade associations, industry coalitions, and non-profit organizations. I ultimately settled on a long-term career in private practice, but my years in and around the public sector have served me well throughout my career.
8. Outside of the law, what are your favorite activities or hobbies?
I love sports and fitness – especially cycling, swimming, hiking and yoga. I’m particularly fond of multi-day charity bike rides. I’ve had some amazing experiences on both coasts – fantastic, beautiful, challenging rides with people who are into both cycling and social causes. I don’t have nearly the time I’d like to devote to reading, music and art – but I try to fit those things in as much as I can. One thing I do make time for is gardening – the combination of design, exercise, visual focus and sustainability really appeals to me and takes me far away from my work. I love my work – but it’s important to break away once in a while.
This post was originally published on the legacy ABA Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice Notice and Comment blog, which merged with the Yale Journal on Regulation Notice and Comment blog in 2015.