By Jenny WhalenAug. 25, 2014
The memos rarely self-destruct and the gadget collection is limited to a Blackberry, but the position of General Counsel for the Federal Bureau of Investigation is not without its air of adventure, at least for James A. Baker.
"Throughout my career, I've been extremely lucky to have a series of fascinating jobs that have been extremely rewarding," said Baker, a 1988 Michigan Law graduate. "Being General Counsel for the FBI means I have to deal with all of the legal risks and issues that confront the entire FBI—everything from counterterrorism to civil rights, and all of the FBI's priorities across the board."
Appointed General Counsel in January, Baker has spent much of his career in the public sector, working primarily on issues of national security and intelligence. Despite brief stints with Verizon Business and, most recently, Bridgewater Associates, LP, Baker said his "desire to serve the country and to have a positive impact on the world" has led him to return to roles in government time and again.
He credits part of this lifelong interest in public service to his postgraduate clerkship with the Hon. Bernard A. Friedman in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
"That was a fantastic opportunity in many ways, but among them was the fact that at the District Court you are able to see a whole range of matters and parts of the law in practice," Baker said. "That visibility helped me figure out that among the things I was seeing, the work of the U.S. Attorney's Office was the most interesting. As a result of that influence I decided to apply to the U.S. Department of Justice."
He joined the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) through the Attorney General's Honors Program in 1990 and went on to work as a federal prosecutor with the division's Fraud Section, moving to the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR)—now part of DOJ's National Security Division—six years later.
National security and its associated legal issues soon became an area of expertise for Baker, first through his work on matters related to criminal litigation and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and later as a result of his role in supervising the rule of law and law enforcement activities of DOJ attorneys in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But over the last decade, it is cyber security that has emerged as a chief concern and personal focus of Baker's.
"It is a very significant threat to the country now and raises a whole range of legal issues that are very complicated and tricky," Baker said. "It's a challenging area to practice in, but one that is very important. I've watched cyber threats grow over the course of my career in dealing with national security matters and I've become increasingly alarmed over the nature of the threat and the difficulty the defenders face in trying to deal with it."
From the cyber criminal who threatens individual bank accounts to the organized crime group that puts the nation's banking sector at risk, the scope of the FBI's work is vast and the demands on its legal team equally so.
"It's really about 270 people giving advice and performing legal services for the Bureau at headquarters, with another 100 or so attorneys across the country giving legal advice to FBI field offices," Baker said of the General Counsel's office and Chief Division Counsel program.
And being in the business of advice, Baker readily offers his own to law students aspiring to similar work in their postgraduate careers.
"Go forth and do public service, whatever that means for you," Baker said. "Work for the government, or a nonprofit, or do pro bono … if you are a lawyer, you should try to include public service in some part of your career. You'll be a better lawyer for it."
"But follow your passion. Think about why you are in law school and what you want to out of a legal career. Lawyers really need to follow their passion and do what excites them if they want to lead a rich and rewarding life."
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