Keeping Tabs is a Q&A series that follows alumni on their careers after graduation, the lasting impacts of their clinical and pro bono experiences at Harvard Law School, and their experiences in a variety of sectors of law.
Every work day is unique for Samuel Levine ’12, who serves as Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection. In his role, he oversees enforcement, rulemaking, and policy work across a wide range of areas, including privacy, data security, marketing, financial services, digital advertising, consumer reporting, algorithmic decision-making, and small business financing. With a constant eye towards protecting U.S. consumers, Levine is tasked with staying ahead of industry shifts and preventing predatory practices from impacting customers.
Before his appointment as Director, he served as an attorney advisor to Commissioner Rohit Chopra and as a staff attorney in the Midwest Regional Office. Prior to joining the FTC, Levine worked for the Illinois Attorney General, where he prosecuted predatory for-profit colleges and participated in rulemaking and other policy initiatives to promote affordability and accountability in higher education. He clerked with The Honorable Milton I. Shadur in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
Levine is an alumni of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, where he spearheaded efforts to challenge illegal foreclosures, and he received the Gary Bellow Public Service Award in recognition of his commitment to social justice. We caught up with Levine to learn more about his passion for public interest work, common misconceptions about government work, and challenges facing consumers in today’s digital economy.
Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs (OCP): Please tell us about your role at the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). What type of matters are you engaged in on a daily basis?
Samuel Levine (SL): The FTC has been described as the greatest public interest law firm in the country, and I have the distinct privilege of leading our Bureau of Consumer Protection, which works to make markets fairer through lawsuits, rules, market studies, and consumer education. Our remit is incredibly broad and includes issues ranging from fraud to privacy to algorithmic fairness and advertising. No two days are alike, but I love working alongside interdisciplinary teams of world-class attorneys, investigators, technologists, and consumer education specialists.
OCP: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges facing the constituencies you serve, consumers in the U.S., today?
SL: Since the Reagan era, we’ve had a consumer protection paradigm that I’d describe as “notice and choice.” In short, this has meant that so long as companies disclose somewhere how they’re handling consumers’ money or their data, consumers do not need protection. I’m not sure that was ever true, but it’s certainly not true in today’s digital economy. Consider privacy. It’s a fantasy that consumers can be put on “notice” of how their data is being handled by reading thousands of pages of dense privacy policies. And it’s a fiction that they can somehow exercise “choice,” when that would essentially require them to opt out of the digital economy. So, a big focus for the FTC is moving toward substantive protections for consumers, rather than relying on discredited economic models that say consumers should fend for themselves.
OCP: What do you see as the power of government lawyering as an avenue for making change?
SL: There is a view that government is slow, unambitious, and unsophisticated. But that is not my experience – certainly not at the FTC. We have extraordinary lawyers here, and their skills are complemented by those of our world-class economists, technologists, and investigators. We’re a small agency where our Commissioners know many of our rank-and-file lawyers, and this allows us to be nimble in responding to trends in the marketplace. For example, we issued a major report on AI months before it started dominating the headlines, and we’ve already brought lawsuits and proposed rules addressing AI-related harm. And it’s not only around tech where our lawyers are making a big difference. Through our work against fraud and financial exploitation, we return hundreds of millions of dollars to consumers, while making markets fairer for everyone. Lawyers who want to make a real difference should consider a career in government, and in this moment of change for our economy, there’s no place more exciting than the FTC.
OCP: Upon your graduation from HLS, you were honored with the Gary Bellow Public Service Award in recognition of your commitment to social justice. How do you apply your own values to your work at the FTC and the organization’s priorities?
SL: Gary Bellow devoted his career to fighting for underserved communities, and to inspiring law students to do the same. Receiving an award that bears his name was therefore quite humbling. But a decade later, the award still hangs in my office, as a reminder of why I pursued consumer protection in the first place – to fight back against economic exploitation. Thinking of Gary Bellow helps me stay grounded in what I came to D.C. to do.
OCP: While a student at HLS, what clinics did you participate in? What lessons or memories stick out to you when you reflect on your clinical experiences?
I was a proud member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, where I was mentored and inspired by the late David Grossman. Dave will always be one of my heroes. During the foreclosure crisis, he helped lead efforts in Boston and around the country to keep people in their homes, leveraging not only law but also people power to fight back against mass eviction. Dave also made sure that his students never saw law as an abstraction. He took us to hard-hit neighborhoods across Boston where we bore witness to the devastating impact of predatory lending and other abuses, and he inspired so many of us – including me – to commit our careers to fighting for economic justice. He was a true mensch, and I miss him dearly.
OCP: Throughout your career so far, what qualities have you recognized in successful attorneys? What qualities do you think are important for law students entering their careers?
SL: I’ve been very privileged in my career to do work that I am passionate about. I have not gotten rich, but it’s allowed me to have a wonderful career, where even my most stressful days are deeply fulfilling. I would encourage students to take advantage of HLS’s wonderful clinical programs to explore what they like to do and see if they can make a career of it. There are many new lawyers with sterling credentials, but few with demonstrated experience and passion.
OCP: What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in government work after graduation?
SL: Just go for it! When I was a student, my peers interested in government gravitated heavily toward a narrow subset of jobs, such as AUSAs. But there are so many other opportunities out there. I started my career in state government, and I met wonderful people and did important work. There are also opportunities in municipal government, county government, and a whole host of federal agencies that may be less familiar to people. Of course, the best of these is the FTC, and I would encourage rising 3Ls to consider our newly formed Honors Attorney Program. This is a wonderful place to work, and I am always happy to talk to interested students.