The OPIA Blog

Alumni Spotlight: Tackling financial policy work in the federal government

Adam Szubin (HLS ’99) is the Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. He has served in that position since 2006. OFAC is in charge of implementing all U.S. economic sanctions, which include targeted sanctions against non-state actors such as terrorist organizations and narco-traffickers, as well as state sanctions against Iran, Syria, Sudan and other countries.

Mr. Szubin’s position at OFAC is formally a policy position, not a legal one. Despite this, he said that it would be difficult to do his job without being a lawyer; a job which involves working to issue new regulations and licenses, as well as designating new targets for asset freezing and drafting executive orders. He has worked closely with the counsel’s office at Treasury, but often feels that his own legal training is very helpful in being able to effectively direct OFAC.

While in law school, Mr. Szubin knew he wanted to work in government generally, but did not think he would end up in finance and economic policy. He devoted significant time to serving on the Board of Student Advisors and participating in the Ames competition. He felt that these experiences, working in small groups on specific projects, were great training for real legal practice situations he faced in his work following law school.

After graduating from HLS, Mr. Szubin clerked for a year for Judge Ronald Gilman on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, then was accepted into the Department of Justice Honors Program and worked in the Federal Programs branch of the Civil Division. At first, he handled cases involving religion law, but then gradually became involved with terrorist financing cases after 9/11. This work led to a detail assignment as Counsel in the Deputy Attorney General’s office, where he coordinated terrorist finance litigation for DOJ as a whole. Mr. Szubin’s supervisor in this role was Stuart Levey, who in 2004 was named the first Undersecretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Mr. Szubin followed Mr. Levey over to Treasury as a senior advisor, then was named director of OFAC in 2006.
In these positions, Mr. Szubin has found that what he learned in specific courses like Administrative Law and Federal Courts has been useful, but the most valuable takeaway from his legal education has been the strong general analytical skills he developed at HLS. He also emphasized that all of his positions in government came about because he was open to all opportunities, not just those in a specific path or subject matter.

Mr. Szubin stressed that, in addition to being open to a variety of opportunities, working in government often requires a willingness to start off in a job outside one’s area of interest. He felt that it was much easier to change jobs and move around once inside the government rather than applying to jobs before getting in the door. He also said that even for those students who are interested in policy work, it is valuable to practice law for a few years as he did at DOJ. He felt that this experience provided him essential training and helped make him into a lawyer, not just a person with a law degree who passed the bar.

Written by former 1L Section Rep Aaron Blacksberg