Lawyer-Alumni profile: Elizabeth Pugh (Sociology ‘71, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law ‘78)

Elizabeth Pugh
Sociology ’71, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law ‘78
General Counsel, United States Library of Congress

How did you get here – what led you to this field and practice setting?
In 1971, as a senior at UMass, I was Chair of the Student Union Governing Board, and had the chance to meet the President of the University, Bob Wood.  As a result of this meeting, I ended up working with the President’s Office in Boston first as a student and then in a permanent job after I graduated.  In that capacity, I was the primary student liaison between the central office of the University in Boston and the Amherst campus.  It was a wonderful opportunity: to be 22, traveling with the President, and working with the Board of Trustees.

At about the same time, the President’s office hired a lawyer in central administration—William Rawn, and he was the first lawyer I ever worked with.  [Ed. note: William Rawn later became an architect and his firm is the principal architect/designer for the Commonwealth Honors College Residential Complex.] Working with Rawn got me interested in law, and in higher education law in particular, but I decided to get my Masters first in Higher Education Administration and Counseling Psychology at Ohio State.  It was around this time that I decided that my dream job would be to serve as general counsel in a university.

I continued to work from time to time for President Wood, on the university’s programs supporting urban youth. Wood was the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), so he had a very Washington approach to work, which I appreciated. 

My next step was law school.  Since I’d become a legal resident of Ohio by then, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University was the best option—the in-state tuition was reasonable enough that I was able to graduate from law school without any debt.

My second year in law school, I began working in the General Counsel’s office at Cleveland State University. Despite this glimpse of my dream job, I really wanted to be in Washington.  I was awarded an honors internship for law school grads at HUD.  I worked there for two years doing administrative litigation, which I liked very much.  An opportunity presented itself for me to move to the Department of Education, which seemed perfect, but I was not involved in specific programs related to education.  I dealt mostly with litigation around non-programmatic issues.  I really loved litigation, but I wanted to be a first chair litigator, and that meant working at the Department of Justice (DOJ).

When I did move to DOJ, I loved it.  I was a litigator for many years, and then became a manager, in charge of government information litigation.  This led to becoming the General Counsel at the National Archives, overseeing everything from the litigation of the Nixon papers, to the opening of the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.

Fourteen years ago, I was selected as the Library of Congress’s General Counsel.  It was my first time outside the Executive Branch, which was something of a switch. 

This is the best job in Washington. I’m a career civil servant.  I love representing the United States.

Describe a typical day/week – what are the kinds of tasks you engage in on a regular basis?

I oversee three Associate General Counsels with a total staff of 15. Our office handles matters in three areas: people, money, and collections. 

The People part includes human resources, employment disputes, and labor unions—everything affecting the approximately 3,600 people who work for the Library of Congress.

The Money section involves the over $670 million plus private donations we receive every year—to purchase collections, install exhibits, hold symposia, etc.  We have to review actions relating to the use of appropriated and gift money.  There are a myriad of restrictions on the use of appropriated funds, gift money, contracts.  Because we’re like a mini-corporation, we have a large number of contracts, most of which my office reviews.

Then there’s Collections—not collections from people who haven’t returned books (we are not a lending Library), but the collections we manage at the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress builds its collections through people donating items to the Library, buying collections, receiving collections through wills and trust. We also deal with the intellectual property issues involved in our website and social media presence. The US Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress.  We are not the copyright expert for Congress, the Register of Copyrights is, but we do review the copyright issues for what goes on our website and other social media. 

There is no typical day—every day is different, and I enjoy the variety of the job.  I love litigation, but I have assistant general counsels who handle the actual litigation in collaboration with Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs) from the Department of Justice, which represents us in federal court. I try to get our law student interns involved in a little bit of everything we do.

How many hours/week do you work? How’s that work/life balance thing working out for you?
At DOJ, I was working much longer hours.  When you’re a litigator, the deadlines are not your own, they are the courts’.  You work long hours and weekends because briefs have to get written and filed.

As General Counsel, I can control my work a lot more and I try not to let my attorneys get burned out.  I could retire any day but I choose not to because I enjoy it (a 35 year civil servant). New interesting projects come up all the time. 

Where did you go to law school?

I went to Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, part of Cleveland State University in Ohio, where I was eligible for in-state tuition.  I’m still very involved with the law school, and serve on its National Advisory Council. In 2008, I received an honorary doctorate from Cleveland State University.

What did you major in at UMass?  How has it been helpful to you your law career?
I majored in Sociology and I even served as a TA in Sociology 101. In my view, it doesn’t really matter what you major in.  I can’t say Sociology made a difference, more than another major might have.  You should do something that you’re going to enjoy and engage in it. You’ve got four years, that’s the beauty of college. Enjoy it!

What’s your favorite UMass memory?
I have so many!  Meeting the president [of the University] is one of them.  I introduced him at an event, and did a little double entendre that came out the wrong way and made everybody laugh, and allowed me to bond with the President.  I enjoyed the diverse experiences that I had.  I loved being involved with the opening of the Campus Center. I also loved working in the Student Union, selling candy and bus tickets, and watching people come in and eating candy at 7 am (my freshman year).

Any choices along your career path that you particularly regret or are especially grateful for? 
Yes—I didn’t know anything about clerking for judges.  I didn’t know what that was or how it could be helpful.  I didn’t think it would have made a difference in my life, but I didn’t even know about it.  Before I went to law school, I didn’t know any lawyers except Bill Rawn.  I was never encouraged or told about those opportunities. Clerking for a judge really helps you when you’re looking for a job.  It makes such a difference.

If you couldn’t be a lawyer any more, what would you do? (Or: what’s your second career going to be? Or maybe even, what was your first career?)
I love volunteering at the zoo.  I’m a docent at the Library of Congress. If I could, I would probably spend more days at the zoo and more days as a docent.  I’m at the kids’ farm at the zoo. It’s the only place at the zoo where visitors of all ages can touch the animals. I love watching the kids touch the animals. They’re so happy.  I come home with a smile on my face. 

How do you respond when someone asks your advice about whether to go to law school?
They really need to think about it, and not decide to go because they can’t think of anything else to do.  Attending law school can never hurt you in any career that you choose to go into. I know a former DOJ attorney who is now a producer in NY.  What she does is just like litigation in many respects—there are skills that you get as a lawyer that are transferable to so many other fields.  The significant issue today is the expense of law school. Bottom line, I would encourage people to go to law school if that’s what they really want to do and not because it’s a default.

I’ve also always given the advice that if you’re not happy, do something about it.  There’s nothing worse than being unhappy in a job.  Find something that makes you happy.  I have this job, but I also have a family (including 3 grandchildren).  I volunteer at the National Zoo.  There are other things in my life.  My job is not the only thing that I do.

If you could have dinner with any lawyer, real or fictional, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Abraham Lincoln.  He was an amazing person. I am inspired by the way he practiced law, and how he handled the Presidency.  I wish he was around today!