Ms. JD

First Woman: U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade

Ms. JD founding member Jill Russell interviewed Barbara McQuade, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, for our First Women series.

Barbara L. McQuade is the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.  She is the first woman to hold this position. Before becoming U.S. Attorney, McQuade served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Detroit for 12 years and as a professor of criminal law. She was Deputy Chief of the National Security Unit, where she prosecuted cases involving terrorism financing, foreign agents, export violations, and threats. During her career as a federal prosecutor, McQuade has also prosecuted cases involving violent crime, fraud, narcotics, racketeering, and cybercrime.

If you could give one piece of advice to women in the profession generally what would it be?  Relationships matter.  I think that when I was in law school I thought I’ll just work hard and make it on my own. I don’t need any special favors from anybody. I don’t need connections of any kind. I was almost proud of that, like it was a badge of honor. But I think one thing I have seen is that relationships are really important in the world, they’re what makes the world go round. And there’s nothing improper about that. If you are in a situation of trying to choose between two applicants for a job and they both look wonderful on their resume and one person you’ve never heard of but the other clerked here in the office two years ago and you’re familiar with their work, that’s probably going to be a deciding factor. Build relationships with your professors, your law school classmates, your co-workers; don’t sit behind your desk all day. They’re more important than you realize.

What made you decide to go to law school?  I wanted to change the world, right? The same reason lots of people want to go, I suppose, that it was a chance to have an impact on my community and the world, and I didn’t know exactly what but I hoped I would do something positive for the community.

Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get into this area of work after law school?  Well, after law school I did a clerkship with a district court judge, Bernard Friedman, which is a wonderful job and gave me a chance to see all different kinds of work and the kind of work that I found the most fascinating was the work of the U.S. Attorney’s office because I thought they were doing really important things. They were involved in things like public corruption and violent crime and it seemed like the work of the office really could have a real impact on the community. I wasn’t able to get a job there right after the clerkship so I went into private practice. Had a wonderful experience at a large law firm, it was the Butzel law firm here in Detroit and I enjoyed it very much. Worked with some wonderful people but I always wanted to be here and eventually after about 5 years I got a job here. And this office doesn’t turn over much. It’s a place where people come and stay their whole career because it’s such a wonderful place to work. So the openings are few and far between, but after 5 years there was an opening so I came over here. I worked here for about 12 years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney before I got this job. And it’s an absolutely wonderful job, being an Assistant U.S. Attorney I think is the greatest thing in the world to do. It’s interesting, it’s challenging, it’s satisfying and you really can have an impact on the community.

What has kept you engaged in the profession?  I am interested in the chance to be able to do work that you feel has an impact and the U.S. Attorney’s office, the variety of work keeps it always very interesting and the range of work was from gun cases, street crime to terrorism and high level fraud. So the work is very interesting but you can really see the impact you have, improving the quality of life I think is sort of the mission that we have here at this office and every case that comes in the door we kind of view through that prism. If we take this case can you impact the quality of life of the citizens of the Eastern District of Michigan, whether it’s an environmental case that will protect our waters – that is Michigan’s greatest asset and something we need to protect – protecting our citizens from street crime and improving public safety is so important; protecting our citizens from public corruption so that they can have clean government and confidence in government. So all the things we do I think has a deterrent effect on others out there, then I think we’ve made a very significant impact.

What challenges do you think that you’ve faced being woman in this profession, and how do you overcome those challenges?  I think I’ve been really very lucky as a woman. I think I happened to come along at the right place, at the right time and I’ve had a lot of opportunities, either in spite of the fact that I’m a woman or even possibly because I am a woman. I have not encountered many obstacles at all, in fact I think because people yearn for diversity I think I’ve actually probably been given more opportunities than a lot of other people. So I know that I have these opportunities because of the hard work of the women who came before me, a generation or two ahead of me, I think really did miss out on opportunities, were denied opportunities, but they fought the hard battles. And because of the battles they fought I didn’t have so many doors open for me. And so I have not encountered a lot of sexism. I’ve really only encountered a lot of opportunity and I think it’s because of the work of those women who came before me.

How do you balance your working professional life and your working personal life and do you have tips for others?  Choose a good partner; it’s really important. I think that when people are choosing partners they do it when they’re young and they may not be thinking about the long term consequence of career and family. I am so lucky that I have a husband who’s very, very supportive of me and my professional goals. We have four children and they don’t take care of themselves. They have a lot of work that needs to be done, you know, for the care and feeding and activities of four children and my husband does an awful lot, doctor’s appointments and parent-teacher conferences, a lot of those things; he is much more than a partner. But choose your partners well and I don’t know that people always think through, is this someone whose worldview is compatible with my professional ambitions. I am lucky enough that my husband came from a family where his mother was a lawyer and a judge, prosecutor. His father was a dentist and they were two professionals. But in his household despite the fact that that was a generation ago, it was very much an equal partnership and I thank my mother and father-in-law for raising a son who sees that as very normal, that Mom and Dad are going to be very involved in their professional lives and in their community as well as in their homes. But it’s a challenge and it’s a balance, you know. There are certain things that I try to do to make sure that I’m with my kids. Like if I have to be out of town, instead of going down the night before, I’ll get up at 3:00 in the morning to get there the next day so I can have an evening home with my kids because there are enough nights that I miss with them, or weekends that I miss with them that I will squeeze out every chance I get. If I can leave at 3:00 so I can go watch a cross-country meet, I’ll do that, even if it means that I’ll be working at home after they go to bed. But if you have the luxury of shifting your schedule like that, that helps an awful lot. Not everybody has that luxury, I know, but it is a challenge and I think you’ll always feel like you’re never doing either job as well as you want to. There are some times events that I wish I could go to in the community but I can’t because I want to be at a parent-teacher conference. In fact I’ve got that exact conflict coming up next week where I had to decline an event I would have really loved to go to, but someone else from the office will go. We have 115 lawyers here who can go to that. My kids only have one mom, so I think it’s more important to be at the parent-teacher conference. But I feel bad about missing the event and there are other times when I miss things with my kids because there’s an event I think I need to be at and I feel guilt about that. So I think constant guilt is the reality of trying to do all of those things.

Who’s been your most influential mentor and how did that person help you get where you are today?  You know I’ve had a number of mentors. And one thing that I think is important for women to remember is your mentor doesn’t just have to be someone like you, doesn’t have to be a woman. It’s doesn’t have to be someone who is of your same race or ethnicity. I had a lot of mentors from different groups. You know one of my great mentors is the judge I clerked for, Judge Bernard Friedman, who is wonderful and taught me a lot of important lessons, one of which is just be nice to people. It costs you nothing and will repay you tenfold. Just a great lesson and he’s been a wonderful friend and helpful to me in all kinds of ways – learning about the law, and how to treat people. Julia Darlow, who is a very prominent lawyer in the community, was the first woman who was president of the state bar of Michigan, has been a wonderful friend and generous with advice and generous with connecting me with other people. I find that oftentimes just by asking people, people will be very generous with advice. She’s been a wonderful mentor as well. You know here in this office there’s a lawyer by the name of Bob Cares, who was a supervisor of mine who was a wonderful mentor, and continues to be, he’s still here, but who is someone who just attacks his work, doggedly, and I’ve learned a lot from him just how to organize a case and how to go after an investigation and a prosecution. So really, I think I’ve had a number of mentors and I think they come in all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, ages and you should look for them actively. And I also seek to be a mentor. I really try to be generous with my advice as well. I know how valuable it’s been to me. So I meet with a lot of students and young people and a lot of people ask and I try to say yes as often as possible.

What’s the best part of your job?  Well there’s almost too many to name, there’s so many great parts to the job. One of the things I really love is hiring new attorneys. I’ve had the luxury of hiring 16 new attorneys and it’s been a really wonderful experience. I think part of it is because it’s such a wonderful place to work and because the job market is tough out there. We’ve received applicants who are phenomenal, the qualifications of these people is really wonderful. And it’s so gratifying to see people who are giving up very high paying jobs at law firm who will come and take a pay cut, make about a third of what they’re making because they want to come here and make a difference. And so interviewing and hiring those people has been really a lot of fun and very gratifying. So I think that’s probably one of the most important legacies that you leave as a U.S. Attorney, because I’m only here for 4 years and there are a lot of things that I will do that will long be forgotten, but the people I have will probably stay, I hope, for most of their careers and they’ll be here for a long time. So hiring them is a really important decision, one I take very seriously, but I’ve been really thrilled with the people we have hired. We’ve also tried to improve the diversity of the office through our hiring and so our goal has been to hire outstanding lawyers with diverse backgrounds. And I think we’ve done that. We’ve hired people from all different walks of life who are really outstanding and I think will make us a better office. It’s been a really fun part of the job.

What’s been the biggest professional challenge that you’ve faced and how did you recover from it?  Well I don’t know if this is something you recover from but I think one thing that I continually challenged by is time management and delegation. As a lawyer I think you are accustomed to being responsible for a small universe of substance but knowing it in great depth and being knowledgeable about every detail and following through on every detail. And now my work is spread into very wide and broad subject matters that I have to be responsible for. And my involvement in all of them is very shallow. And as a result I have to delegate a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s not something I’m accustomed to, it’s not something I’m that comfortable with, not knowing every detail of something but I think you have to surround yourself with good people you trust and trust them to do their jobs and to take their advice and follow their judgment. And so that’s what I’m trying to do but it’s been uncomfortable for me because it’s not something I’m accustomed to but you know luckily I was just saying to someone today how thankful I am that no balls have been dropped and this group has been really outstanding in follow through and attention to detail and I never have to go back and say did you do that, what I asked you to do, because I know they’ll get it done and it’s a wonderful thing to have that confidence that people are just going to take care of business and so it’s been wonderful. But it’s a challenge and something I think just doesn’t come naturally to worriers or control freaks.

What advice you do you have for women lawyers and students who want to pursue a career as a U.S. Attorney?  Get some experience in something that will give you a demonstrated commitment to public service. That’s one thing I always look for on resumes is, you know, you’re working in the public sector that’s certainly a good demonstration that they mean it when they say I care about making a difference in my community, or even if they’re working in a private law firm or a private business, if in their free time they’re also pursuing activities that show a commitment to public service. You know we’ve got people who came from big firms but who work actively in Big Brothers and Big Sisters or they were active in bar activities, other things that just show that you’re helping making the community a better place. We have someone involved in literacy projects, so I think that that shows to me that they’re not just talking the talk because they want a job here, they really mean it. This is somebody who is dedicated to making their community a better place so. We hire people from all different backgrounds. Pursue what you love. Some people from big firms, some people from private practice and people from county prosecutor’s offices, other components of government, criminal defense bar, all different kinds of backgrounds -- which is very useful and makes this a better office. But I think the thing that all these people have in common is something in their background suggests that they have a commitment to the public service.

My last question is what do you see as the greatest challenge facing the legal profession today and how do you see the profession changing over the next 5-10 years?  Well, I don’t know if it’s the greatest challenge but I think improving the diversity of the profession is still a challenge that we ought to address. When you look at legal organizations, law firms and others, you see pretty good diversity at the lower levels but often not so much at the higher levels. And part of that I think is generational and changing for the people graduating law school classes, the diversity is much greater than I think it once was. But I think diversity is a really important thing, not just because it sounds like the right thing to do but I think it really makes an organization much stronger. And I’ll tell you, for example, how it does in an organization like ours. We’re mostly prosecutors, we also have some civil lawyers, but when we’re in court I think it’s useful to have prosecutors who at least sometimes look like the person that they’re prosecuting so that things can’t be cast in racial terms, that you’re only going after a person because of their race. If you have lawyers who look like the defendant, it just takes that issue off the table and neutralizes that issue. I also think it helps us that our cases, when we have big indictments we sit around the table and we’ll kind of hash it out- how to cross examine this witness, and how the jury is going to so this. I think it’s useful if you’ve got people at the table who can say things like ‘you know, where I grew up not everybody believed the testimony of a police officer. So rather just having him say so, maybe you ought to shore up that testimony with some bank records, or phone records with surveillance testimony, other things that can shore that up.’ Or you might get someone who was born in a foreign country who says ‘you know where I come from people don’t trust the government and so there’s a reason we don’t tell them how much money you’re carrying and other things.’ It’s just really important to have a different perspective at the table.  And I think the same is true in private law firms, improving diversity. I think it is improving, it’s improving slowly, but I think that if more and more people understand it’s important I think we will see improvement in diversity. And I think to serve the community that we live in it’s important that we represent the community that we live in.



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