Interview with Mozelle W. Thompson

In 1997, President Clinton appointed Mozelle W. Thompson as a Commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission where he became a leader in international consumer protection, high technology competition, and online privacy. Previously, Thompson had served in the Treasury Department, overseeing domestic spending and credit policies and creating the Office of Privatization. Before that, he was general counsel of the New York State Finance Agency.

A graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School, Thompson has a master's in public policy from Princeton University. After clerking for U.S. District Court Judge William M. Hoeveler in Miami, Thompson began practicing law at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Throughout his career, he's been active in professional organizations mentoring law students and new attorneys. In addition to serving as a Business Law Advisor to the ABA Business Law Section, Thompson has taught at Fordham, Stanford, and Princeton Universities. He's received many honors, including the Distinguished Service Award from UC Berkeley School of Law.

In 2005, Thompson founded Thompson Strategic Consulting, which provides legal and policy advice to companies like Facebook and the Walt Disney Company. In 2008, Thompson led the Obama/Biden Transition's review of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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What inspired you to attend law school and practice law?

I'm not so sure that I had a particular goal in mind. I was naturally curious and a problem solver. I also thought at some point I'd be interested in public service. So law school seemed like it would provide me with analytical skills and an understanding of how the law worked.

How did you come to specialize in business law?

I didn't start there. Before law school, I thought, "Maybe I'll be like Perry Mason," a criminal lawyer. But in my first year, I found out that it wasn't interesting. At the same time, I had an elective taking tax, and I actually thought that was more interesting than I thought it would be. I was fortunate enough to be involved in a joint degree program in law and public policy so I had a chance not only to study law, but also spend some time understanding things like macro and micro economics and policy analysis and how markets work. I've always been interested in the line between public policy and business.

What were your early years in practice like and how do they compare to the practice for new lawyers today?

I started my career after clerking at Skadden Arps in the 80s. Everybody has read books like Barbarians at the Gate and it was that dizzying, exciting, and intense. Companies were fighting for their lives and you were representing them and it was not for the faint of heart. But I had a really interesting bird's eye view of how companies work and, when they're fighting for their lives, you begin to see how people make decisions.

What was the highlight of your work at the FTC?

I got there at a time when we were just beginning to look at something called the Internet. This was the late 90s, early 2000s. Part of the challenge was to take an agency that was crafted to deal with competition issues and bring them to the point where they're thinking about the market for the HP-Compaq merger or what's going to happen to AOL and Time Warner. We dealt with legal principles on competition that were being revolutionized by technology. One of the first things that we were able to do was create consumer guidelines for e-commerce. That was an opportunity not only to look at this new and burgeoning field, but also to talk about how consumers should be treated around the world.

Describe your work now as a strategic consultant, particularly your role with Facebook.

After I left the Commission, I was thinking about what kind of work would best utilize my experiences. I thought that maybe creating my own platform to give strategic advice, not just legal advice, to companies might be an interesting way to proceed. It just so happened that a very good friend of mine who I've worked with over the years had just become general counsel of a new start up in Silicon Valley called Facebook. He called and said, "Look, here's an opportunity for you to not only use your legal talents and expertise, but also to work on a project with a company that has technology that could potentially change the world."

One of the things that I've always talked to students about is that public policy is not just made in the government - it can be made anywhere. You have to look for the opportunities where you can actually help create an environment a public benefit. I saw that Facebook could change the world. It was exciting, looking back on it, how it lived up to my expectations and beyond.

You've been active in professional and civic organizations devoted to diversity. Why is diversity and mentoring young people, people of color, important to you?

Part of it is a reflection of my own experience. But part of it is looking at what the world is going to look like and what the future is going to look like. There are a lot of people who may not come from a place of privilege or are not around people who have been successful and they may not understand how to value what they bring to the table in terms of experience and insight. So I enjoy talking to them and telling them early on that their ideas have value. It's helpful to have someone tell them that you can make as much of a difference as you want and to not be discouraged if you feel you're undervalued or under recognized. Persistence is important and your ideas are important. Someone has to tell them that. You have to empower them. In many instances, some of those important ideas in the world are not by people who are privileged; they're from regular people who want to make a difference.

How do you differentiate your work as a lawyer from your work as a business advisor, a strategist?

There are times when a client comes to me with a specific representation where they need counsel or they need an advocate. Then there are times where clients come to me for different kinds of advice. They are trying to figure out, for example, how they should be looking at the data they collect and what kind of relationship they want to have with the public and the people who participate in their website. They want to know what kind of rules and regulations might apply to them, especially in the online space, that they didn't necessarily foresee. Or how they can take something that's truly innovative and think about how they can educate regulators about the innovation. Those aren't purely legal questions - they have legal implications but they also have larger policy implications.

How do you see the legal profession changing?

The economic downturn has forced clients to think about how they use lawyers and how lawyers provide value and what kinds of things can be taken in-house. That net-value examination is passed down the line; it's forced lawyers to think about the services they provide and how they provide value. It has caused essentially a reset button; the legal profession has changed and it won't go back.

What was the highlight of your work as a Business Law Section advisor?

Working with young people is one. You always have this interesting mix of people. There are elder statesmen who have been very successful in the legal practice. You have younger people who are trying to think about how to walk into this new marketplace and you have existing practitioners who are trying to figure out how to manage the transition. It's important to be able to talk to people about the roles they could take in various stages in their career.

What is a commonality among the most successful business lawyers that you know?

There are a lot of lawyers who walk into a room and say, "Give me the problem and I'll give you an answer." But really great lawyers want to know what you're thinking. Because if the lawyer can understand how you approach your business or how a government agency approaches its mission, they can better be your partner in solving problems, sometimes before they even arise. I consider those lawyers not only smarter but also wiser.

How easy is it for lawyers to reinvent themselves throughout their career?

The question reminds me of something I told a group of lawyers once: think about the things you really care about and the role they play in your life and to remember that your life is not just one dimensional, but you have stages. You should think about how you incorporate the things you are passionate about into what you do.

Let me give you an example. People talk to me about public service all the time because I have been fortunate enough to do a lot of it. They say, "I've been a lawyer in ABC law firm and now I want to be a lawyer in government." They may have worked in finance all their life and think they want to be a lawyer for the Treasury. Then I say, "Have you thought about what you care about? Do you have a great love for the national parks? Are you trying to figure out ways for them to be sustainable? If you're passionate about that, you could give your expertise to people who are trying to figure out how to make the parks sustainable."

So don't just think in the area that you fit it, think about how you provide insight and experience in a wide range of things, and I think that you will find that really fulfilling.

Who is your idol in the legal profession?

There are so many people I respect and admire. But one comes to mind: I clerked for William Hoeveler in Miami. What he did for me is priceless. When I got done with law school, I was a little discouraged about the commercial aspects of the law, about people wanting to make money and wondered whether that was what the law was all about.

With Judge Hoeveler, I learned what I call the majesty of the law: there is such a thing as justice and fairness, and there are people who fight for it, and there are people who want to see justice prevail, and they want to see people in a better situation. That was such as uplifting experience for me because you don't always get that in law school. It colored the rest of my legal career because it told me, it's OK to fight for justice, to fight for the right answers, even if it's not popular or easy. I learned so much from him, things that are not in the textbooks - I learned about the humanity of the law.

Who has been your most influential teacher?

My parents. I don't say that as a platitude. Mine is an American story. My father was an African-American high school dropout and learned to fix airplanes in the Korean War. He was stationed in Japan, where he met my mother. My mother is Japanese, and they met in Tokyo and got married. They came back to the U.S., and my mother didn't speak any English. My older brother was born in January in Tokyo and I was born in December in Pittsburgh.

My father went back to school and then worked at TWA for 48 years as a mechanic. In the meantime, they had four kids. I have an older brother who is an MIT graduate and an engineering professor. My sister graduated from Amherst and works for American Airlines. I have a little brother who went to Harvard and is a brain surgeon in New York.

My parents didn't know anything about college; they didn't know anything about what it takes to attain high positions. But they gave us a couple of important gifts. One, they never told us there was anything we couldn't do. They would say, "Whatever you think you want to accomplish, you can accomplish." That's a real gift.

They also instilled in us an important way to think about competition. So many people think it's you versus the next guy. But my parents taught us, "Look in the mirror - are you the best you?" They talked about how not to leave people behind, that there are people who have not had the advantages or luck that you've had. I think that that's why my older brother is a professor, why I've had a career in public service and why my little brother works at an inner-city hospital. I have to give it to my parents - they started with nothing and when I think about all of the challenges, I frankly don't know how they did it.

What are your interests outside the law and outside of business?

For a long, long time, the choice wasn't about going to law or business; it was whether I would continue to play music professionally. I've spent many years from the time I was in junior high school until I was a second-year law student being a musician in a jazz-rock band.

What do you play?

I did jazz violin for a long time. I was a bass player for a long time. I spent many, many years as a lead singer.

What has been the most fulfilling moment in your work?

I thought it was important for government agencies to have a connection with their communities so in both the Treasury Department and the FTC, we started a program where we would take high school students from inner city Washington, D.C., and bring them on to work with us for the summer. For many of those people, it's the first time that they've ever been in an office, the first time they're in a professional setting.

After I left the Commission, there was one evening that I was at a supermarket and I hear this woman saying, "Mr. Thompson?" I turned around and I saw this young lady and she said to me, "I'm sure you don't remember me, but I was in your first class of interns at the FTC. I just wanted to let you know that last month I started law school. Without your encouragement, my life would be a lot different."

There are times, especially if you're in public service, when you're never quite sure whether the ideas will translate. So that was a great moment.

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