Volume 100 -- Issue 5 Georgetown Law Journal

The State Department Legal Adviser’s Office: Eight Decades in Peace and War

Today we commemorate the 80th birthday of the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser. This event marks both a personal and professional celebration for so many of us who have been associated with this remarkable office over the years. The conference has generated a fascinating and diverse set of comparative, historical, and intragovernmental insights into the office’s unique contributions to the shaping and interpreting of international law. The last time I addressed an audience from the American Society of International Law (ASIL), during my first year in this job, I spoke about the role of the Legal Adviser and some of the current challenges we face. At this birthday gathering, let me focus on what has made the Office of the Legal Adviser—or “L,” as it is affectionately known in the State Department—such a critical and respected part of the U.S. government. Put another way, who are the distinctive people, and what are the distinctive traditions, norms, and practices, that have made L the distinctive legal institution it has become?

This event marks a particularly auspicious moment to consider this question, given the recent publication of a book by Michael Scharf and Paul Williams that shines welcome light on the history of the office and its unique role at the intersection of international law and U.S. foreign policy. The book offers a fascinating read and includes interviews with all of the living Legal Advisers, seven of whom (not counting myself) have joined us at this conference: John Bellinger, Will Taft, David Andrews, Conrad Harper, Davis Robinson, Roberts Owen, and Herb Hansell.

At any anniversary party, you review the past, assess the present, and toast the future. So let me share some reflections on “L Past, L Present, and L Future.”

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