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Monday, April 16, 2007

The deputy debate

As a special extra to our blog readers, Minnesota Lawyer is once again making this week's editor's column available in its entirety.

A management primer: Who moved the U.S. Attorney’s cheese?

By Mark A. Cohen
Minnesota Lawyer, April 16, 2007

Unlike the silly tempest in a teapot some made of Rachel Paulose’s $225 investiture ceremony, the decision of the U.S. attorney’s top deputies to step down from their leadership posts cannot be laughed off.

It is a serious business indeed when three highly regarded career prosecutors take a risky step like that. And when such a radical move accompanies reports that the U.S. attorney’s management style is “abrasive” and “disrespectful,” we must be doubly concerned.

My, how things change in just a few short months. When Paulose became the nation’s youngest U.S. attorney at the age of 33, she was lionized in the media. Her confirmation in the U.S. Senate had been unanimous. The child of an immigrant family, she was on top of the world. But now she finds herself fighting to keep her job and to prevent her previously spotless reputation from being torn to shreds.

Welcome to public life, Ms. Paulose. And as bad as things have gotten, they have the potential to get worse.

A number of media sources have tried, though so far unsuccessfully, to link the current controversy in the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office with the national debate over U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ role in firing eight U.S. attorneys in other jurisdictions.

Paulose’s predecessor, Thomas Heffelfinger, left public life 14 months ago for a job in the private sector. He has repeatedly said that his decision was personal and that he was under no pressure to resign. But the unknown in the mix is whether Heffelfinger was on a “hit” list of U.S. attorneys slated for removal and would have been squeezed out had he stayed. If his name was on the list, and the document becomes public, Paulose is likely to again find herself in a firestorm of controversy.

It would, of course, be a shame if Heffelfinger’s name is there, given that Heffelfinger is a dedicated public servant who ran the office for two presidents. But the people who added the name to the list would be the ones properly answerable for that, not Paulose.

By all accounts Paulose is intelligent, talented, hardworking and highly driven. As far as I can tell, there are really only two potential areas of inquiry left in determining whether she can be a good U.S. attorney — her independence and ability to manage.

Minnesotans have a right to expect their U.S. attorney will exercise her independent judgment in running the local U.S. Attorney’s Office. If the job were merely to be an instrument of the attorney general, there would be no need for U.S. Senate confirmation. By the same token, Paulose has a responsibility not to use her office for purely political ends. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I think that Paulose is entitled to the benefit of the doubt on these issues.

More troublesome at the moment is the question of Paulose’s managerial abilities. Given her youth and status as a relative outsider when she became acting head of the office last year, it was to be expected that some of the nearly 50 experienced, talented and mostly older attorneys who work there would be unhappy having her as a boss. However, the action by the deputies goes well beyond the typical grumbling. It would be doing the three distinguished deputies a disservice to imply that they would do what they did out of petty jealousies or mere office politics. I credit the reports that they had major differences with Paulose over her management style.

Paulose’s resumé is highly impressive. It demonstrates that she is a Type A super achiever with enough energy to power a small city. However, the one thing missing from her otherwise stellar background is significant management experience.

For someone used to relying on his or her own skills and hard work to achieve success, having to rely on the work of others, as is the case in management, can come as quite a shock. There is a real temptation to micromanage rather than trust your people to do what they do best. And when your subordinates are of a high level of ability, they are likely to feel patronized and degraded when you micromanage them.

Do I know for sure this is what happened in Paulose’s case? Certainly not. I am actually speaking from my own experience. When I became editor of this paper, I was a 32-year-old with limited prior supervisory experience. I probably committed every management mistake in the book during that first year. Fortunately, unlike Paulose, I was not operating in a fishbowl. After a lot of trial and error, I eventually found a management style that worked for me and survived the experience. In fact, I wound up becoming so interested in the topic that I began taking management classes and eventually obtained my MBA.

I have already noticed some encouraging changes in Paulose’s management approach. I read an Associated Press report that said Paulose early last week called a general meeting of her staff, acknowledged that she had made some mistakes and apologized. These actions are all positive steps.

So were do we go from here?

To borrow a reference from Scripture, as Paulose is reportedly apt to do, I do not agree with those calling for her head on a platter. However, to whom much is given, much is required. Paulose has been given an extraordinary opportunity at a relatively young age, so our expectations are correspondingly high. Hopefully, our faith will be justified.

Mark A. Cohen is the editor-in-chief of Minnesota Lawyer. He can be reached at (612) 584-1531 or by e-mail at mark.cohen@minnlawyer.com.