Before turning to a career in law and then to politics, Chris Lu first dreamt of becoming a journalist. He had served as the senior editor of the Daily Princetonian, his college newspaper, and even written his thesis on press coverage of Presidential campaigns before graduating from Princeton in 1988.
But it was not to be.
“My parents are immigrants,” explained Lu, whose mother and father were born in China, moved to Taiwan and then emigrated to America in the ‘50s. “They were like, ‘Yeah, you are going to get a graduate degree,’” he said, laughing. “When you are a liberal arts major and your parents tell you that you have to get a graduate degree and there’s not much else you can do—you go to law school.”
His fate was in some ways sealed when he subsequently attended Harvard Law School and was a classmate of a young Barack Obama. The two orbited again as summer associates at Sidley, ultimately sharing the distinction of having met their wives while at the firm: Lu in the Washington office, where he met an environmental associate named Katie Thomson (now General Counsel to the U.S. Department of Transportation), and Obama in the Chicago office, where he met Michelle Robinson.
Though Lu was ultimately only at the firm from 1992 to 1997, when he left to serve as Deputy Chief Counsel on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he considers his time at Sidley a crucial and formative part of his career. “The legal writing, the oral advocacy, the analytical skills—I got all of that training from Sidley and I continue to use it every single day,” said Lu, who, in April 2014, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Labor.
He recalls some particularly rigorous legal exercises as a litigation associate in Sidley’s Washington office. “I remember the first time I had to do a practice deposition, partner Tom Green was defending and he ran circles around me,” said Lu, equal parts bemused and awed. “What I learned from that experience—even after later taking dozens of depositions as an investigative lawyer on Capitol Hill—is that nothing was ever going to be as difficult as taking a deposition from Tom Green.”
Since leaving Sidley, Lu’s portfolio of career accomplishments includes conducting high-profile investigations while with the Government Reform Committee. He joined then-Senator Barack Obama’s office in 1995, first as Legislative Director and then as Acting Chief of Staff. Lu also served as the Executive Director of the Presidential transition planning efforts. Later, he served as Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary for Obama from 2009 to 2013.
In assessing his life achievements, Lu points to his efforts to elect a President as among the most gratifying.
“I started working for Barack Obama when he was a junior senator – 99th in seniority,” said Lu. “I helped him develop the legislative record that formed the basis for his campaign. I ran his Presidential transition, helping him assemble the new Administration. Those are the things I am more proud of,” he added.
Lu also sees value in having served as the co-chair of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “When I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was hard to imagine that somebody who looked like me could aspire to a career in public service,” said Lu. “By talking about my experiences, hopefully, I can encourage others from the Asian American community to consider a career in government. That’s not only good for them—I think it’s good for the country,” he added.
Though Lu has now served many more years in government than in law, he said, “Sidley will always be a special place for me. After all, I did meet my wife there,” he joked.
According to Lu, he and Thomson kept mum about dating while at Sidley, though there was one partner who may have known. Both Lu and Thomson had offices on the third floor of the old Sidley building in D.C. They sat on either side of a corner office in which a soft-spoken former environmental partner, Langley Shook, resided.
“He may or may not have noticed that there was heavy foot traffic between our two offices,” said Lu, sheepishly. “But if he did, he was tactful enough to have never said anything about it.”
Published September 2014 - UPDATE U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Management and Reform, U.S. Department of State