Saturday, January 13, 2018

Humble Bureaucracy

By the time I’d practiced law for twenty-five years, I had worked in two large law firms, a small firm, and a nonprofit advocacy organization. In each workplace, I reported either to the head of the entire organization, or to a lawyer who reported to him.

Two years ago, after Western Washington University university’s longtime general counsel retired, the Washington Attorney General’s Office (“AGO”) hired me to serve as chief legal advisor to the university. The AGO chose me because of my extensive experience and broad background in private practice and public service. My job responsibilities, status, and compensation all reflected my role as a senior lateral hire.

The org chart did not.

Instead, I reported to the Bellingham Office’s “Education Team Leader.” She in turn reported to the attorney managing the twenty-person Bellingham AGO Office. The Bellingham Section Chief reports to the Regional Services Division Chief, who reports to a Deputy Attorney General, who reports to the Chief Deputy, who reports to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Bob reports to the voters.

The newly-appointed Bellingham Education Team Leader had zero management experience. She was a midlevel attorney who’d spent her entire legal career with the AGO after graduating from a third-tier law school. I was the only Education Team member under her novice supervision.

In contrast, the chief legal advisors at the state’s two larger institutions of higher education, UW and WSU, each leads an AGO Division dedicated to the university. Both report to a Deputy Attorney General. Other than at Western, every other attorney advising one of Washington’s public universities reports to the chief of the AGO’s specialized Education Division.

Six months earlier, the AGO had revised the local organization chart to address unrelated staffing issues in the Bellingham office. Upon my arrival, they mechanically stuck me into a vacant slot – even though the org chart was created before they knew there would be a new university general counsel, and before they knew who would coordinate the local Education team. The org chart was approved by Deputy Attorney General Christina Beusch. At the AGO, you need to be at least a Deputy Attorney General to approve decisions of consequence.

Let me hasten to add I recognized the Bellingham reporting structure was odd when I accepted the position. Nevertheless, I was convinced it wouldn’t be a problem. Throughout my career I’ve reported to lawyers who were younger and less experienced than me. I try not to be a reflexive snob, and I’ve worked with numerous fine lawyers who graduated from Seattle University. In most AGO offices, the “team leader” role is purely administrative. Colleagues would describe me as easy going and agreeable. I loved my job and was committed to making the situation work. I was confident we would all succeed. But I was wrong.

I met Deputy Attorney General Christina Beusch in Fall 2015, at the annual AGO Academy for new attorneys in a rustic retreat center on the slopes of Mount Rainier. All the Deputies and senior staff made an appearance, but Ms. Beusch was present for the entire orientation retreat. It’s her baby.

Ms. Beusch is an AGO veteran who achieved Deputy status at a record young age. I immediately observed she is decisive and outspoken, and a fierce defender of her beloved AGO. During the orientation, Ms. Beusch introduced the AGO’s vision statement: to be the “best public law office in the country.” She herself is an AGO true believer. According to Ms. Beusch, this superlative vision is within reach; I got the impression that she believes it has already been achieved.

Ms. Beusch is delusional.

There are many fine attorneys throughout the 550-lawyer AGO, particularly in divisions handling high-profile matters. But these dedicated and skilled public servants are spread too thin. A quirk of the Washington Constitution provides that only the Attorney General’s office can represent any state government agency, including the State’s public universities. However, the reality of Washington state politics is the Legislature refuses to appropriate anything approaching adequate funding to meet the State’s modern legal needs.

Or to fund the needs of basic education, or the foster system, or just about anything else – there’s just not enough revenue. Washington is the only blue state without a state income tax. Decades of paralysis from anti-tax ballot initiatives and partisan gridlock prevent any meaningful reforms to our outdated, regressive state tax structure. Even with the best intentions, without sufficient resources it’s impossible for the AGO to be the “best public law office in the country.” [Ed. note: Or in the county. Or the city.]

In our family, January 7, 2016 is a day that will live in infamy. The Division Chief summoned me to Seattle to receive my long-delayed performance evaluation. He told me I would be meeting with both him and Deputy Christina Beusch. I got his message the night before, in the parking lot of the Starbucks where I happened to be meeting my ex-Mormon Army veteran friend who also suffers from PTSD.

I began my very long day at Western, in the President’s office in Old Main. A group of grateful vice presidents and other senior stakeholders were there to close a complex transaction I had managed to salvage after a prior AGO attorney had given erroneous legal advice.

I ended the day back in Old Main, in the office of one of the university’s vice presidents to discuss another neglected transaction. Coincidentally, on my last full day at Western two months later, the Provost came down to my office to thank me for bringing stakeholders together and putting this important project back on track.

These important client meetings and the five hour round-trip drive through Seattle traffic sandwiched a horrifying encounter with my employers.

Ms. Beusch’s subordinate, Regional Services Division Chief Michael Shinn, began our January 2016 meeting by listing my alleged offenses. He read from a secret document the AGO still refuses to share. Mr. Shinn included prior complaints from months before that I thought had already been handled directly with the affected individuals. His list failed to correct several obvious factual errors I’d previously brought to his attention.

During the meeting, it became apparent that my immediate supervisors and supposed colleagues had each been keeping their own files of dirt on me, characterizing every encounter with luridly hostile spin to “create a record.” Clients and colleague uniformly praised my legal skills and acumen, but complained about my clumsy personal interactions. Again, the AGO refuses to share these secret Stasi-like informer files, demanding that I file a separate lawsuit under Washington’s Public Records Act.

This meeting was my first notice of the homophobic attack months before that became the subject of my sexual orientation discrimination complaint. I also learned a virulently homophobic client representative had also complained about my attempt to come out to him about my disability, grossly mischaracterizing our encounter. I attempted to respond to some of the charges, particularly the new ones, but my ambushers had no interest in hearing from me.

Instead, Ms. Beusch became flushed and angry when I described the challenge of serving my new clients while learning to navigate the AGO’s and Western’s separate bureaucracies, and promptly ended the meeting. One of my Bellingham colleagues later told me certain folks at the AGO are deeply offended by the term “bureaucracy.”

I have nothing against bureaucracies.

It’s true that I previously worked in law offices with “flat,” non-hierarchical formal org charts.  But any enterprise involving more than one participant evolves its own system of rules, norms, and procedures, whether it’s a de facto dress code, idiosyncratic use of language, or procedures for getting help with IT problems.

Humans are social animals. Organizations are organisms. I’ve always been fascinated by the myriad ways we arrange our affairs. My acute logomania compels me to observe and seek coherence in the patterns around me.

When I offended Ms. Beusch with my reference to “bureaucracies,” I merely meant that part of the challenge of any new position is to figure out how the system works. Like fish oblivious to water, longtime members of an organization are often unaware that there’s a system to figure out. In my case, the daunting learning curve included simultaneously integrating into both the university community and the Attorney General’s Office. In addition to all my other challenges, I had to cope with two email systems, two hierarchies, two IDs, two parking passes, two copy codes….

Websters defines “bureaucracy” as “government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority.”1 It’s a nineteenth-century term combining the French word for office and the Greek root for rule.

1The definition of “bureaucracy” can also include “a system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation.” However, I don’t assume Kafka-esque incompetence is inevitable. Except perhaps at the AGO.

I meant no offense when I referred to learning to navigate the university’s and the AGO’s two separate bureaucracies. They are two very complex organizations, with two sets of formal and informal rules. “Bureaucracy” is a neutral term accurately describing each office. As an office.

For three years, I served on the board of the Washington State Bar Association. It was an interesting but frustrating experience, often resembling an episode of Yes, Minister. Anyone who observed me jousting with WSBA’s skilled but occasionally nonresponsive and nest-feathering staff knows my go-to insult when when I want to criticize an impenetrable regime of inflexible office rules:  I call it a “French-style bureaucracy.”

Twenty-two years ago, I drove to my parents’ house to have an awkward conversation.

As I wrote in a recent tribute to my parents, no one in my family willingly talks about our feelings. In fact, we prefer to communicate about most important topics through a combination of telepathy and subtext. This has proven to be less than ideal in practice, particularly on those frequent occasions when everyone is confused about the time and place of family gatherings.

It also causes us to delay important conversations. Which is how I found myself at age thirty-one knocking on my parents’ door to tell them (1) I’m gay; (2) I just quit my law firm job in Seattle; (3) to move to Chicago; (4) with my boyfriend; (5) to be a gay rights lawyer; (6) for the American Civil Liberties Union. My parents handled it all exceptionally well. However, we agreed on a temporary cover story: I’d been disbarred and sent away to prison. 

A few days after my meeting with Ms. Beusch, I had the déjà vu experience of driving across town to have another awkward conversation with my parents. I had delayed telling them about my PTSD diagnosis. I didn’t want to cause them pain for their role in exposing me to the traumas of my youth, and I didn’t have the tools to gracefully tell them the whole Mormon-PTSD-codependency thing was all their fault. (As it turns out, it’s best to be blunt about this sort of thing. Or turn it into a clever joke.)

Nevertheless, based on my employers’ response during the meeting, I accurately predicted exactly how this was going to play out over the coming months. So I came out to my parents as a person with PTSD, and let them know that my job was in peril as a result of my disability. I felt I couldn’t wait any longer because they were about to leave for their annual snowbird month in Hawaii.

Once again, my parents handled it exceptionally well. However, my mother could not sleep all night, and her blood pressure shot above 180.  She told me later that week that I shouldn’t surprise them in Hawaii with any more bad news because she was almost out of her blood pressure medication. Fortunately, however, my parents have been very supportive throughout this painful process. 

Deputy Attorney General Christina Beusch ended our January 2016 meeting with some advice: “Be more humble.”

Since our meeting in January 2016, I have contemplated Ms. Beusch’s advice. No doubt Ms. Beusch and some of her xenophobic colleagues were convinced I was trying to change everyone to my liking, stomping through the AGO like an ugly American tourist in Europe. That was certainly never my intent. To the contrary, I believe in the Greek concept of Xenia – being a respectful guest. I was fascinated by both Western and the AGO, tried hard to figure each out, and appreciated their unique cultures. Similarly, I have sung in three very different gay choruses, but I would never tell the folks at Vancouver Men’s Chorus they should do things the way they’re done in Seattle or Chicago. Strangers and colleagues both deserve respect. I hope Ms. Beusch and I agree on the importance of cultivating this kind of humility.

Humility can also involve a form of submission. Lots of issues don’t have an absolute “right” or “wrong” answer, just a decision needing to be made by the duly authorized decider. Being part of a team means playing the game and following the rules. That means supporting the process and the respecting the outcome, even if you wouldn’t have ordered the deli sandwiches again if you were in charge. Of course, it’s hard to be an effective player when everyone else on the team is calling you names and hiding the ball – but I tried.

Ms. Beusch’s and my views on humility diverge when it comes to the common logical fallacy of “appeal to authority.” As I wrote last fall about the Mormon Church’s anti-gay dogmas:   

One definition of a fallacy is “any argument that’s not as strong as it thinks it is.” Ultimately, the proposition you are arguing for either is correct or it’s not. A fallacious argument does not increase your chances of being right. Instead, it gives you a bauble to distract people away from their search for truth.

In most situations, an authority figure’s opinion is simply one kind of evidence offered in support of the advocate’s proposed conclusion. Regardless of credentials, an authoritative statement standing alone is never dispositive of the facts. Depending on the subject matter, the conflicting evidence, the authority’s expertise, and the effectiveness of the presentation, her views may be more or less convincing. My children have learned to trust my pronouncements on numerous topics, from hygiene to grammar to the sequence of British monarchs since 1066. But they also realize it’s safe to ignore what I say on a handful of other less important subjects, such as pop music and dating.

Even the Catholic Church admitted Galileo was right all along. Eventually. That’s what happens when you stop insisting something is true just because you said so, long after everyone else has embraced the truth.

The most important kind of humility is recognizing the possibility you may be wrong. Thoughtful, unbiased, considerate skepticism is essential to good judgment.

One of tort law’s many colorful terms is the “eggshell skull plaintiff.” If the defendants’ negligent conduct causes a blow to the plaintiff’s head, the defendants are liable for all resulting damages, regardless of whether the victim suffers a bruise, a concussion, or a fatal hematoma. 

When Ms. Beusch told me to be humble, she definitely knew my doctor had diagnosed me with PTSD two months before. At that point, she knew or should have known my disability involved traumas from my Mormon youth. But she’s a busy and important bureaucrat. She probably didn’t realize how the Mormons messed with me by vilifying gay people and denying the existence of their sexual orientation – and how the AGO’s cruel, reality-denying, and authoritarian treatment was the primary trigger of my agonizing PTSD symptoms thirty years later.

Deputy Attorney General Christina Beusch was the one who rejected my initial request for a reasonable accommodation of my disability – offering laughably phony rationales for her decision, and zero willingness to consider any of the alternatives suggested by my healthcare providers. Then when I complained about the earlier homophobic incident, she was the one who placed me on an abusive administrative leave that felt more like house arrest. Finally, after refusing to hear from my doctors or my disability attorney, Deputy Attorney General Christina Beusch made the decision to fire me.

At least she didn’t accuse me of faking my disability, like my inept Team Leader did. Ms. Beusch just didn’t want a misfit like me in her beloved AGO.

After each episode of Game of Thrones, the online magazine Slate asks “who is currently the worst person in Westeros?” “Westeros” is the fictional continent whose throne everyone is fighting over on HBO. “Western” is the shorthand everyone in Bellingham uses to refer to our community anchor, Western Washington University. My former employers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office hired me to serve as Western’s chief legal advisor, then spent the next year abusing and discriminating against me. When I’d made enough progress with PTSD to share some of the stories about my experiences, I decided to borrow Slate’s framing device. Stay tuned to see who will ultimately be crowned as the Worst Person in Western-eros…. 

Click here for other episodes of "Who is the Worst Person in Western-eros?"

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