Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

Ethics at the Pentagon David Thompson '19L spent the summer at the Standards of Conduct Office, the senior ethics office for the Department of Defense.

J David Thompson is a 3L at Washington and Lee School of Law. He received his BS in Economics and MBA from Liberty University. Before coming to law school, David served in the U.S. Army. At W&L, he’s volunteered with Washington & Lee Veterans Advocates (WLVA) and Women’s Law Student Organization (WLSO). Separately, he is Co-Director of Service to School JD Operations, a Leader with Veterans for American Ideals, and a 2016 Veterans in Global Leadership Fellow. Connect with David at www.jdavidthompson.com.

What first attracted you to W&L Law?

One of the things that drew me to W&L was the focus on international law and the opportunities, while still a student, to work with faculty to make a global impact. This proved itself to be true time and time again.

Additionally, before coming to W&L I worked in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  While in Za’atari Refugee Camp, I noticed how early childhood marriage impacted women’s education. A friend that I previously served with in the Army was a current student at W&L, Nick Ramos (‘18L). He gave me advice on transitioning from the military to law school and recommended that I consider W&L. That night, after working in the refugee camp, I reviewed the courses and faculty at W&L. I noticed a report from Dean Bond’s Human Rights Clinic titled Early Childhood Marriage and the Affect on Women’s Education in Tanzania. I read the report that evening, finding that the situation was largely analogous to what we faced in Jordan for Syrian refugees. I distributed the report to the working group the next day, and we used that report as a baseline for future efforts. W&L provided benefit to me before I even applied.

What did you do this summer? How did you find/get this position?

I interned at the Office of the General Counsel (OGC), Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). This office is at the Pentagon, outside of Washington D.C. Particularly, I interned in the Standards of Conduct Office (SOCO), which is the senior ethics office for the Department of Defense (DoD). I found the position on USAJobs.gov.

Describe your work experience.

First, I worked in the Pentagon, which is humbling and inspiring. Being central to so many important decisions facing the world is an incredible experience. The work done by OGC has real world, operational consequences. Assisting people in decisions and legal analysis that affect so many lives is sobering. I never lost the awe of walking into the building and through the 17 miles of corridors.

Second, my office was between the offices of Secretary Mattis and the Secretary of the Army. On several occasions I ran into General Dunford (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) at the Pentagon Gym. Having Active Army experience and serving in the Army Reserves, it is quite an experience to interact with so many Senior Executive Service (SES) and General Officers. Having the opportunity to interact with people that devoted so much of their lives to public service and the country while rising to the highest levels in the Department is an experience I probably would not have had otherwise.

What classes or experiences were useful in preparing you for the summer work?

The Office of the General Counsel for DoD is quite large, to say the least. Given the portfolio of things coming before OSD, I used a little bit from an array of classes—everything from Contracts to Mass Atrocities. Professional Responsibility proved to be one of the most beneficial classes for working in the SOCO. Administrative Law proved to be another valuable class. Through the International Criminal Tribunal, I received a small glimpse into some of the litigation work by DoD.

What was your favorite aspect of this summer work experience?

Even though I had 10 years of military experience before the internship, the breadth of issues coming before OSD shocked me. In addition to the Department’s main mission, it also has hospitals, schools, family programs, and more. OGC has attorneys for all of these issues—from personnel and employment, healthcare, litigation, legislative, international, intelligence, standards of conduct, and more. The first issue I received revolved around a program to assist families with handicapped children. This was a surprise as it was not something I expected to handle when applying to the internship. Of course, it is an important issue, and I want to assist service members and their families. The range of issues I handled only grew more diverse from the start. It was incredible to be able to work on such a broad array of issues from one organization.

Additionally, I worked with some of the smartest and kindest people in the government. Secretary Mattis (DoD) takes a strong ethical stance—what he refers to as the “ethical midfield.” As such, SOCO sees nearly everything that comes before the Secretary. In addition to working for one of the best Directors in the Department and a strong team, I engaged with leaders all across DoD. Everyone from Policy to Acquisitions wants to ensure they comply with the Secretary’s guidance. As such, they seek out SOCO to ensure DoD is above reproach on standards of conduct. The level of access this internship enabled is well beyond what I think most internships offer.

What would you say for someone looking to intern with DoD?

Do it—especially if you’re interested in working for the government. Even if someone does not want to work in DoD on traditional military type stuff, the level of access that this internship provides is amazing. In addition to everyone you meet working at the Pentagon, I met with the House Armed Service Committee, House Office of Legal Counsel, White House Situation Room, White House General Counsel, White House Military Office, and others. Even if a person does not want to handle the traditional military type work, there are lawyers that handle all the aforementioned areas.

Working at OGC, OSD enables one to contribute to public service while still a law student. The impact you get to have on issues of national and transnational importance is unparalleled. Further, this internship puts you in the GS system and provides a security clearance, which assists for employment with other government agencies. I really cannot recommend this internship enough.

How do you think this experience will shape the rest of your time at W&L Law?

Beyond my last year at W&L, I think the experience of working at OGC, OSD will, to varying extents, shape my personal and professional life. First, I made friends and colleagues with other incredible interns and employees at DoD. I am truly grateful and a better person for having met and worked for them. Second, the leadership lessons and commitment to service is something that I always appreciate. Third, the incredible support by Secretary Mattis for ethical leadership and recognition that public service is a sacred trust between me and people that will never meet me is something that cannot be understated. This work reconfirmed that I need work that is impactful and meaningful. I am a values-driven person, and working in an organization with shared values enables both the organization and me to thrive.