A Conversation with Samuel Heyman ’63

As chairman of International Specialty Products Inc., Samuel Heyman ’63 is a leader in business. But his early experiences in the U.S. Department of Justice made him a firm believer in government service. He founded the Washington-based Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the revitalization of federal government service, as well as the Heyman Fellowship Program, which provides financial assistance to HLS graduates who pursue work in the federal government.

You began your career in the Department of Justice as a trial lawyer during the Kennedy administration. What drew you to public service?

When I graduated Harvard Law School in 1963, the Kennedy administration was in office–those were the days of the “New Frontier.” John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 had created a sense of enormous excitement for young lawyers, as lawyers played key roles in the new administration. Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, was a charismatic figure who inspired us all with a sense of purpose and change.

Robert Kennedy took a particular interest in the department’s young lawyers, and I remember being invited to his office for a beer on a Friday afternoon with 10 or so colleagues. Kennedy recounted that he himself had started at the Justice Department right out of law school and reminded us, “If you’re bright, capable, work hard, and your brother is elected president, you too can become attorney general!”

I could not have achieved whatever I’ve been able to accomplish in business without it. I’ve been involved in proxy contests, corporate takeovers and a whole range of business and legal matters that I would never have been able, or had the inclination, to undertake without being comfortable with the legal issues. And no matter how high the quality of legal representation, there is no substitute for a client’s focus, passion and commitment to a matter in which he has a significant stake.

What motivated you to create the Heyman Fellowship Program?

It was sparked, actually, by a conversation I had with [former] Dean Robert Clark four or five years ago. When I graduated Harvard, almost 30 percent of our class went to federal, state or local government. He informed me that the number had declined, I think, to only 3 or 4 percent.

The government is unable to recruit more of the brightest and best today in part because many students are graduating with significant debt–which was simply not a factor in the ’60s. It is the objective of our fellowship program to substantially reduce the financial disincentive associated with government service.

You have one of the world’s great art collections. What catches your eye?

My wife and I have been collecting art together since we were married 35 years ago. We are not into what one would call “pretty pictures” but are interested in more difficult art which is challenging, sometimes even disturbing and always thought-provoking.

What advice would you give to today’s law students?

I am continually amazed at the fact that most young people today have little concept of what government service is all about, which is unmistakably the result of the government’s failure to communicate its message. While the financial opportunities are greater in the private sector, the psychic rewards and job satisfaction are incalculable where you can make a difference on issues affecting the direction of the country. Public service does not have to be a lifetime career–it can be a segment of your professional life that may enhance or even outshine the rest.