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Q&A: Rep. Jim Slattery

Taste of international law in school leads to lifelong career

Jim Slattery posing in the Washburn Law courtroom

(photo by Jeremy Wangler)

From Washburn Lawyer - 2021
By Brad Porter

Jim Slattery, BS '70 JD '74, is well known as one of the most prominent Kansas politicians of his generation. He ran his first campaign while a first-year law student at Washburn University School of Law, knocking on 15,000 doors in central Topeka. He served in the Kansas House of Representatives from 1973-79 and as Speaker Pro Tem in 1978-79. He later served in the U.S. Congress from 1983-95 and ran for Kansas governor and the United States Senate.

Outside of elected office, Slattery has also built an impressive resume as a practicing attorney with a particular focus on international affairs. For more than 20 years he was a partner at Wiley Rein LLP a large Washington D.C. law firm where he headed the firm’s public policy practice and was a member of their government affairs, energy and international trade practices. In 2019, he left to form Slattery Strategy, LLC to advise clients who have matters pending before the federal government and international agencies.

So how did a farm boy from the Good Intent Community in Atchison County, Kansas become a globe-trotting attorney involved in high profile international cases, and what has he learned along the way?

When did you first get a taste for politics and international affairs?

When I arrived at Washburn in the fall of 1966, I had an interest in politics. The first TV my Irish- Catholic family bought was for Christmas 1959 so we could follow John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. By 1968, I was campaigning for Bobby Kennedy and really bought into his idea that “politics can be a noble calling.” I had not travelled outside of the Midwest except for one ROTC flight to Texas. One day though, Dean of Students Lee Dodson pulled me aside in Morgan Hall and told me about an opportunity to study abroad for a year at the Netherlands School of International Economics and Business. I jumped at this chance and was selected as a backup candidate. Thankfully for me, the main candidate had to drop out, so off I went.

It was a life changing experience! I studied international economics and European history with a focus on post WWII East-West relations. I traveled all over Europe—visited NATO headquarters, the European Parliament and looked over the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie in West Berlin. I also traveled extensively in Eastern Europe and saw firsthand the impact of communism. I will never forget being in Prague, Czechoslovakia in January 1969 shortly after several students burned themselves to death to protest the Soviet invasion of their country. It was a transformative time for me as I watched young people my age risk their lives to gain their freedom. This experience along with the Vietnam War spurred a lifelong passion for international affairs and the law.

Studying abroad was not common in the 1960’s. But it was something Washburn prioritized. I will always be grateful to Dean Dodson for encouraging me to go to Europe to study.

And of course, from there you went to law school and entered politics, before eventually landing at a prominent D.C. law firm.

My Washburn legal education has been invaluable to me in the Kansas Legislature, running a real estate business in Topeka, serving in the Congress and being a partner in a prominent Washington D.C. law firm for more than 20 years. I should add that they usually hired the top 10% from the top 10 law schools in the country, but coming from Washburn I never felt I was at a disadvantage in dealing with my colleagues. I’ve told all the young law students I’ve visited with at Washburn, that they should never be intimidated by lawyers from big name law schools. I believe I got a first-class legal education at Washburn Law that has helped me at every stage of my career.

At Wiley Rein, you worked in international law and trade. How did that come about?

My first client at Wiley Rein was from Atchison, my hometown. Midwest Grain Products was the largest producer of wheat gluten in the country. MGP told me how a recent trade agreement, the Uruguay Round, was causing serious injury to the U.S. industry because of a surge in imports from the European Union. I had never done a trade case in my life, but I consulted with our trade experts in the firm and two other Washington law firms and studied the Trade Act of 1974 in search of a remedy for MGP. We ultimately concluded that a safeguard action under Section 201 of the Trade Act was the only viable remedy so we filed suit against the European Union on behalf of the U.S. wheat gluten industry. This action was taken after our negotiations with European Union officials in Brussels failed.

Most trade experts in Washington thought this was a fool’s errand because this section of the Trade Act had not been used for years. But I put together a team, and a coalition within the wheat industry, to fight for the U.S. industry. This litigation occupied a big part of my time for several years as I started my legal career with Wiley Rein. We had to pursue this case through the International Trade Commission and educate members of congress and officials in the Clinton Administration about the serious injury our clients were suffering. But we succeeded in winning a judgment that MGP and others were being seriously injured and were entitled to relief. I then met with President Clinton to discuss a remedy. In a matter of about 5 minutes, he understood exactly what was going on and agreed, to the surprise of many, to impose a quota on imports. This was a groundbreaking case that I especially enjoyed because it saved a lot of jobs in my hometown and it paved the way for other industries like the steel industry to fight unfair and illegal foreign competition that destroyed U.S. jobs. Several years later this led to an excellent monetary settlement for the clients.

In addition to trade cases, you also wound up getting involved in very high-profile cases where you worked as a political intermediary.

Yes. For example, I was retained to represent Julia Timoshenko the former prime minister of Ukraine, who led the 2004 Orange Revolution, when she was thrown in jail by her political rival. In this case there was an international legal component, but it was also a political matter. I spent hours negotiating man-on-man with Viktor Yanukovych the president of Ukraine to persuade him to release my client. I argued that her imprisonment was a violation of international law, and all Western legal norms, and was politically stupid for him. I worked closely with Congress to pass resolutions demanding her release, which put international political pressure on Yanukovych. In the Timoshenko case I pursued a legal and political remedy at the same time.

You’ve talked before about relationships being the key to diplomacy. What do you mean by that?

I believe, as President Eisenhower did, in the importance of people-to-people diplomacy. It’s extremely important in business, in community life, in law and politics, for people to
build relationships. In international relations, it’s especially important, and comes to bear in many ways. I’ll give you a recent example—this is a classic case involving law, politics and relationships.

Xiyue Wang was a Chinese-American student from Princeton, studying in Iran. He was thrown in jail on trumped-up charges by the Iranian Government. His family and Princeton University asked me to help after learning about my experience with Iran.

I helped lead a faith-based Abrahamic outreach to Iran for nearly 15 years with the full knowledge of White House staff. All the American delegations were composed of prominent Christians, Jews and Moslems, hence Abrahamic. Through this experience I met President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zariff and many other high-ranking officials in Iran. I became acquainted with Majid Takht-Ravanchi, who is a University of Kansas graduate, and is serving as Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. I brought in a long-time friend, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, to assist. These relationships made it possible to successfully negotiate the release of Xiyue Wang and see him reunited with his young family.

The lesson is: If there’s one thing that’s crucial in life it’s relationships and learning how to build trust. I believe this can only be done through person-to-person contact. Zoom calls are a poor substitute but better than nothing.

What would you say to a law student or young attorney interested in international law— what lessons have you learned?

To be successful in the international arena it is important to do your homework. Know the law and the facts. Find and rely on experts. And then it is important to determine whether a political remedy is available, or a legal remedy, or both. Sometimes there is a political solution to what appears to be a legal problem. I enjoy the complexity, and I enjoy unraveling all the layers to find a remedy for my client. It sure helps to understand the other side’s perspective.

Find opportunities to study abroad, earn an advanced degree, work with the International and Comparative Law Center, do all you can to broaden your perspective and build friendships. Washburn does a great job of providing these opportunities. But you’ve got to pursue them; this has to be something you’re passionate about. And as you do, build friendships. As Will Rogers once observed, “If you have a business relationship without building a friendship you have been underpaid.” Your success or failure will often depend on the friendships you’ve made in life.

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