Beth Van Schaack

Current Job: Deputy, Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, Office of Global Criminal Justice, U.S. Department of State
YLS year: J.D. 1997


What does your day-to-day look like?

A typical day usually involves one or two inter-agency meetings, which are either done in person, at or near the White House, or via a “SVTS” (Secure Video Teleconference System).  The meetings might be situation focused, e.g. Syria or Kenya, or topically focused, e.g. the Atrocity Prevention Board.  All of the agencies need to be in the room when we have make a decision about U.S. policy moving forward.

Before those inter-agency meetings, we often hold preparatory meetings.  For example, before the State Department attends an inter-agency meeting, we try to have a united State Department position.  And so we’ll often hold meetings within the State Department with the relevant offices and bureaus.  For meetings addressing Syria, for example, we will include the Syria Desk; the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau; the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; our office (Global Criminal Justice); Population, Refugees, and Migration; and the Conflict and Stabilization Office.

Before that meeting, our office—a terrific team of 12 civil servants, foreign service officers, fellows, and interns—works behind the scenes to develop our own position and to socialize our ideas around the building.  There’s a great deal of pre-work to do on building consensus and developing allies on particular positions.

Coming out of those inter-agency meetings, the White House’s National Security Staff might task us with writing papers, doing research, conducting diplomatic outreach, or leading other activities.  Part of my day is spent staffing those various “to do” items to the right people.  For example, if we are tasked with writing a paper on accountability mechanisms in Syria, I have a group in my office that will do the first draft. We’ll then circulate it to other offices and bureaus to get feedback, and amend it until we’re satisfied and we have the necessary input from other offices in the buildings whose equities are impacted by the substance of the paper.  Then that paper will have to be cleared by higher offices, which is done through a process of circulating the paper and meshing all the “red lining” from others.  After this wrangling the substance, the paper is presented back to the inter-agency group, at various levels of seniority, before it becomes part of the new policy going forward.  Designing U.S. foreign policy involves a huge coordination effort.

We also read intelligence daily, read cases and scholarship in our field, speak with our counterparts in other governments, and try to keep ahead of a constantly changing world.

How did you get to your current role?

I had a fellowship right out of law school that gave me two years to do whatever I wanted in international criminal justice.  I spent one year at the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and then one year at the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA).  Neither would have been willing to hire me as a recent graduate with little practical experience, so that fellowship liberated me to say: “Take me! I’m free labor, I’m hard working, I have demonstrated commitment to this field, and I need a foot in the door.” It helped that I had written articles and a Note relevant to the field, so I was a credible candidate.

When that fellowship ended, I needed a salary.  I had an offer from a great law firm that I had put in my back pocket from my 2L summer.  Had I been independently wealthy, I might have gone back to The Hague, but I wasn’t.  I negotiated with the law firm to bring in a pro bono case from CJA, and that became my passion project.  While I was doing patent or commercial litigation, I still had a toe in the field that I knew I wanted to be in.  In the end, I loved private practice.  I felt like I was getting the training that I hadn’t gotten at a small non-profit or at the ICTY.  I took every training opportunity I could and tried to work on cases that I thought would be interesting and give me good experience.  I was able to spend my time at the firm cutting my teeth as a litigator and taking advantage of all that I could.

The position as a Professor of Law at Santa Clara was totally serendipitous.  There are no lessons to be learned from that, except that I had good contacts.  When Santa Clara was hiring in human rights, a friend in the field called me and suggested that I put my hat in the ring, and I did. It was totally luck, but it was luck based on the fact that I was a credible candidate.  I had continued writing while I was in private practice so that I had a consistent record of scholarship.  I always knew I wanted eventually to go into teaching.  When I finally left private practice, I had just had a baby, and so the idea of an academic career jived well with the work-life balance ideal.  I was at Santa Clara for ten years.  While I was there, I did as much as I could in terms of consulting, government work, litigation, and brief writing.  The nice thing about an academic career is that it leaves you space to remain engaged in your field outside of the ivory tower.

The State Department job that I currently hold was offered to me out of the blue.  I knew the Ambassador from having done consulting work with him and from academic conferences.  When he needed a new Deputy, he reached out to me and I accepted—without hesitation.


What skills do you rely on now that law school did not emphasize enough?

I had no idea how government works or how policy gets made.  In law school, you almost never work in this sort of collaborative, constantly negotiating environment.  But what I was incredibly prepared for was the substance of my field.  Because of YLS, I know my field very well.  I’m comfortable with the substance and the underlying principles and values, so I don’t have to prep in that respect for anything.  I can be ready in any meeting to draw on that base of knowledge to substantiate my positions and arguments.  But working in an inter-agency environment—where it’s a constant negotiation and a constant exercise in building coalitions and oral advocacy—that’s not necessarily something that you’re trained for in law school.


What are your thoughts on the “can women have it all” debate? Are there key reforms or changes you see as most needed?

The Anne Marie Slaughter article was, of course, fascinating to me since I am too commuting while I hold this job, but back and forth to the Bay Area. Part of my reaction was: What did she expect?  She had one of the top positions in the State Department.  That’s not a 9-5 job, and it will never be a 9-5 job—for anyone.  It’s not a gender problem; it’s a problem with the nature of that job.  And I think the idea of reforming such a position is impossible, to be frank.  As long as you have a Secretary of State as active and energetic as Hillary Clinton was, you will need someone in Anne Marie Slaughter’s position to be at the Secretary’s side at all times.  When you take a job like that, you have to step out of a situation of balance, and accept a situation of extreme imbalance. That’s just the nature of these jobs.  But, it never lasts forever, so there will come a time when you step out of that role and back into one with more balance to re-charge your batteries for the next time.

And that’s why choosing a life partner is incredibly important.  You need a supportive partner who understands when your stars have aligned and an opportunity presents itself that may never be repeated.    Fortunately, I have a terrific spouse, and it was never a question that I would take this appointment and that we would make it work.

That said, I think my kids are really proud of me.  My daughter brought me to her Brownie troop as her hero, and I gave a talk about “what mommy does” that featured all of the amazing women working in Washington and in President Obama’s cabinet.  I’ve brought my kids to Washington and to behind the scenes tours of the White House and the Capital.  They see that mommy is doing important work and that she’s been called to service, and they understand that we all have to make a sacrifice for mommy to do what she was meant to do.  It is about the whole family being supportive when mommy gets her chance.  There were years when my husband needed extra support, when he was building a company from the ground up, and now we’ve switched.


What would you recommend to law students interested in pursuing a career in international human rights?

Besides getting a top-notch education in the substance of international law, I would strongly recommend mastering a foreign language.  If you want anything to do with the State Department, international human rights law, diplomacy, or international criminal law, being able to operate in a foreign language is incredibly important.

Second, students don’t do enough genuine fieldwork.  By that, I mean going to a place where human rights are being violated, where you are desperately needed. This is the only way to really get a sense of how human rights work gets done and why this work matters so much.  It’s about working with local activists who are on the front lines and whose lives may be in jeopardy because of the risks they’re taking for human rights, and doing what we can—from our position of privilege—to support them, amplify their message, and give them a platform.  That’s what I think northern activists and lawyers can contribute to the system.  So, spend your summers overseas or with an NGO, get a fellowship, take a gap year before or after law school.  I spent over a year in Africa right before law school doing women’s rights work.  That experience gave me a lot of legitimacy in the field.  I knew the challenges and I could share stories with people who had also done that work.  Your 1L summer is a freebie.  Don’t spend it doing something you could do during the academic year, like an externship with a local judge or legal aid.   Try to get somewhere.  And then look for fellowships and funding opportunities, and take advantage of them.  Do this while you’re young and unencumbered.   You can always go back to a law firm or a more traditional career later when you are ready to settle down.

The best advice my father ever gave me is that your first job is never your career.  You should always be looking for new opportunities and positioning yourself for your next step.  I recommend figuring out what you can gain from your current job so that it will get you closer to your dream job.  You might fall in love with something else along the way, but be self-aware and think two or three steps ahead.  And always keep your eyes on that prize.