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AnnMarie Highsmith

AnnMarie Highsmith

AnnMarie Highsmith, Deputy Chief Counsel, Office of Chief Counsel

How did you decide to become a lawyer?

When I was an undergraduate, I was studying international business.  I spent some time in Europe and Australia and was interested in global affairs.  Then, in my last semester, I took a business law class.  The professor was an associate dean for the law school, and he encouraged me to go to law school.  I took the law school entrance exam and decided to give it a shot.  It turned out I really enjoyed law.  I studied international transactions and business law.  My first job out of law school was with the U.S. Customs Service, which then was part of the Treasury Department.  I started as a law clerk, pending bar results, at the Customs Office in Long Beach, California, in 1992.

How did you decide on a legal career in the Federal government?

I hadn’t really considered the government because I had been studying business, which usually leads to a career in the private sector.  But when I looked at the job announcement for the Customs Service, it included international trade work and was intriguing to me.  As it turns out, I did a lot of traditional law enforcement. I loved working on money laundering and drug smuggling cases, working with the agents and inspectors.  I loved the mission. 

When U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was formed in 2003, the mission became broader ⎼ to protect America’s borders and homeland, primarily from terrorism—and that’s exciting.  We always say in our office, if you don’t like what you’re doing, wait five minutes.   We have uniformed clients and mission support clients, and when they need help from us, they have real things they are dealing with.  They have a person or a car attempting to cross the border, or a box in the airport, and it can’t wait.  It’s great to be engaged with the Border Patrol Agent or the CBP Officer; we form a partnership, from my perspective.

Can you tell us more about your first job with Customs?

This was my first job as a lawyer.  I knew the law but did not know how to be a lawyer to clients.  My clients taught me how to do that.  They knew their jobs better than anyone else and were so generous in teaching me.  When I was leaving to come to Washington, DC, in 2006, I asked that they treat every new lawyer as they had treated me.  A good client will make you an even better lawyer.  I’m very grateful to everyone who helped me.  One of the reasons I took a supervisory position was that my new job gave me the ability to help others in similar ways.

Please describe your current position.

My role is similar to that of a managing partner of a law firm.  As CBP’s Deputy Chief Counsel, I have a role in assuring that the OCC (Office of the Chief Counsel) provides well-developed, consistent, and timely legal opinions and advice, and that the Secretary and Commissioner have good, well-reasoned advice on CBP matters.  I help to cultivate the OCC culture for my staff and monitor our progress in establishing and achieving our strategic and long-range plans as an office.  I enjoy that this position allows me a global view of Agency operations but also personal interface with a broad variety of our employees. 

How/why did you decide to move into leadership?

My first leadership position was as Associate Chief Counsel for Trade and Finance in headquarters.  It was a hard decision to make because I really loved my job in California.  However, OCC doesn’t turn over executive positions very often; my predecessor was retiring.  I had always loved the trade functions and thought I had enough experience under my belt, that I had a lot to give back in mentorship and guidance.

Can you tell us about a project you have had that especially stands out?  What did it entail? 

During my last job, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act—the construction of 670 miles of fencing along the Mexico/United States border.  The Agency was mobilized.  I had to build a team of lawyers for its needs.  Practically overnight, we had 500 cases in litigation across the country dealing with environmental, condemnation, procurement, state, local, and tribal issues, etc.  The legal team had to coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Justice, numerous stakeholders in Congress, local political leadership, and others to develop relationships and respond to this highly politically charged mandate.  The fence is up but we are still litigating about 125 cases. 

What are some of the challenges you have faced as a female attorney?

I don’t think that I’ve had any particular challenges being a female attorney.  Being an attorney is a challenging profession.  I am also a working mom.  I have three children.  The oldest is a high school senior.  I have challenges because I am a parent but not because I am a mother; because I am a child, not because I am a daughter.  We all have people and things that we care about and that is where the challenges come in.  We all process information based on our experiences, as a mother, or daughter, or volunteer.  If any of those things inform my judgment, then that makes me a better lawyer.  Half of our staff is female; we’re well integrated in that regard.  I feel now a responsibility to them to be a good role model because I am a working parent.  The challenge is showing folks that you don’t have to down-select yourself.  It’s not always easy or perfect, but there is a way to do the things that are important to us.

What advice would you give to a woman interested in a legal career?

I tell folks that you need to do the things that you love, what makes you happy and fulfilled.  Find things that are challenging and work hard at them.  If you work for the Federal government, your clients need a lawyer who is as passionate about the mission as they are.

What guidance would you give to someone who feels like her career is in a rut?

Same thing — what do you love to do?  How can you take those skills into another environment and have a new perspective?   I love when my attorneys are detailed to different offices.  My Deputy served 90 days as CBP’s Executive Director for Commercial Targeting and Enforcement.  He came back so enriched from that experience. 

Why would you encourage women to pursue a law career with CBP?

First of all, CBP has the best mission in government; the clients you work with are so dedicated. It’s a place where you can grow and take on challenges as far as your skills and abilities will carry you.  There is no end point for you in the Chief Counsel’s office, and you will never get bored.

Last modified: 
March 17, 2015
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