Alumni Spotlight: Phil Weiser (1993; New York)
September 7, 2022
Cleary Gottlieb alumni often reflect upon their time at the firm with fondness and gratitude.
Phil Weiser (1993; New York), Colorado Attorney General, shares some of his thoughts below.
Why did you choose Cleary and what type of work did you do at the firm?
I was looking for a law firm that valued people and attracted kind, humane lawyers. I also really appreciated Cleary’s international reach and commitment to pro bono work. Over my summer, I was able to work on both complex litigation and real estate pro bono work.
Your resume post-Cleary features a variety of public service – multiple clerkships, working in the antitrust division of the DOJ under President Clinton, and a variety of roles in the Obama administration. Can you tell us about this path? What have you learned along the way? And what do you appreciate most about each of these experiences?
My initial plan was to return to New York, where I grew up, but my first clerkship was with Judge David Ebel on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado. I fell in love with Colorado and that changed my trajectory. With Judge Ebel’s recommendation, I was hired to work for Justices White and Ginsburg at the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Ginsburg, in turn, recommended me to Joel Klein, who was then running the antitrust division at the Department of Justice. After working for Joel as his counsel, I had the opportunity to return to Colorado to teach law and telecommunications, build a center on law, technology, and entrepreneurship, and get involved in a range of public service opportunities.
In terms of lessons along the way, a big one is to be open to and take advantage of opportunities. I was open to working in different roles in the federal government, or in a law firm, and I looked for what opportunity was most compelling at each step of the way. Getting engaged at the intersection of law and technology at the dawn of the Internet Age has provided me with a special opportunity to work on fascinating legal issues as they emerged—from broadband policy to artificial intelligence.
Your most recent government service has been as the Attorney General of Colorado. How has the experience lived up to your expectations since taking office in 2019 and what changes have surprised you?
The opportunity to serve as Colorado Attorney General is a tremendous joy. I am able to serve the people of Colorado in a direct way, building relationships at the local level and working on important issues that can make peoples’ lives better. That opportunity—which is really different than the experience of working on issues at the federal level—is very special.
Do you have any regrets? And is there anything in particular you hope to accomplish as you pursue re-election?
I am not someone who worries about things I cannot control or focuses on regret. I do continue to reflect on opportunities, and I have a number of goals for a second term. We are working hard to deploy settlement funds to address the opioid epidemic, redesign our state’s law enforcement curriculum, take on climate challenges like managing our water in the age of drought, and continue to improve our consumer protection operation. These are just some of the important initiatives we have in progress, and you can learn more if you want to visit my campaign website.
I noticed that you have a few Cleary alumni on your team. What skills or qualifications do you look for when you are hiring?
My view is specific subject matter experience is overrated and critical competencies are underrated. That’s why I hired Brea Hinricks, a Cleary alumna, to serve as my campaign manager, even though she never has worked on a campaign before. Brea started out as a volunteer, I hired her to be a fundraiser, and then I promoted her to campaign manager. One of Brea’s superpowers is her emotional intelligence, a competency that many lawyers don’t think enough about. And she is also phenomenal about knowing what she does not know (more on that competency below).
Do you have any favorite memories from your time at Cleary?
I really enjoyed working with Paul Scibetta, an associate who was my summer mentor. Paul and I even had the experience of finding a mistake in closing documents and having to call off a real estate closing. I also really enjoyed the experience of getting to know my fellow summer associates and Cleary lawyers, often over fine New York dining. I had not grown up going to nice restaurants so that was a new and enjoyable experience.
What advice do you have for a young Cleary associate who may want to pursue a similar career path?
The main point I would stress is building relationships with mentors and asking for introductions to people doing things that you find interesting. My strategy, which I developed as an undergrad, is to approach life with a learning mindset. I remain interested in getting to know new people, their paths, and life lessons they have learned.
I know you also spent time as a law school professor. What advice would you offer any student or young associate that you wish someone had offered you?
The main lesson I learned the harder way, and frequently repeat, is that it is important to ask questions. I often say that it’s the question you don’t ask that will get you in trouble. Or, as Judge Ebel often put it, “I am not afraid of what I don’t know; I am afraid of what I think I know.”
What’s something I haven’t asked you about yet that you would like to share with the Cleary community?
I would share that it is a challenging time for our democratic republic and the concept of the rule of law is one that we as lawyers must defend. One initiative we are developing is called the “Ginsburg-Scalia Initiative,” emphasizing the importance of the rule of law as a system for respectful engagement and collaborative problem solving. The level of toxicity in our politics and the extreme political polarization around is unhealthy and a danger to our future. We can all work to defend these values, including by engaging in public service, supporting those working to defend these values, and making our voices heard.
Learn more about Cleary’s global alumni network here.