For much of last year, Valerie Caproni was busy making changes. As general counsel of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), she spent seven months of 2008 rewriting long-standing FBI policy to conform to new Department of Justice guidelines governing how the Bureau is allowed to conduct investigations. Rather than perpetuating two sets of policies—one that pertains to criminal investigations and another that deals with national security—Caproni has combined the pair, giving the Bureau a workable, effective policy under which it can operate effectively.
“The FBI made a lot of modifications after 9/11,” notes Caproni. “With these new guidelines, we’re striving for the right balance between being an agency that can prevent an act of terrorism in the U.S., while at the same time protecting people’s privacy and civil liberties.”
Aside from making decisions that sometimes affect the rights of millions of Americans, the office of the general counsel of the FBI (an agency boasting 30,000 employees and a $6 billion annual budget) perform a lot of the same tasks as GCs at other large corporations: “We’re involved in lawsuits from fender benders involving FBI vehicles to employment disputes to incredibly complicated matters,” she explains. “The 180 attorneys working for me serve functions similar to in-house lawyers at any other company. We don’t do the litigation, but we’re involved in the strategy, gathering documents for discovery, and securing and preparing witnesses.”
Prior to joining the FBI in 2003, Caproni was of counsel at the law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, specializing in white-collar criminal defense and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforcement actions. Before that, she was regional director of the Pacific Regional Office of the SEC in Los Angeles.
“I enjoyed my past positions, and love my work at the FBI where I feel that I’m able to do something for the country. But my favorite job, bar none, was as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Criminal Division of the United States Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York—not as supervisor, but as a line attorney. It’s the best job in the world,” reflects Caproni. “The organized crime cases were my favorite—there was no ambiguity to them. It’s clear that what [the defendants] were doing was evil. Getting to know the families was fascinating; the treachery and intrigue that you see on The Sopranos is true to life, though I never came across a mob boss in psychotherapy.”
At the age of twelve, Caproni set her mind to becoming a lawyer. In retrospect, the native Georgian is a bit surprised (but grateful) that no one in her life suggested she scrap her goal and pursue a then more woman-friendly career in education or nursing. After graduating from Tulane University with a degree in psychology, Caproni went on to law school at the University of Georgia, where she graduated summa cum laude. Following graduation, Ms. Caproni clerked for the Hon. Phyllis Kravitch, United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit.
The fact that Caproni is the first woman general counsel in the FBI’s 100-year history leaves the 50-something lawyer pretty much unfazed. “I realize that to be first is meaningful, but in terms of day to day experience, it’s not a huge deal to me. I think because I’m not easily intimidated, being a woman in what was formerly a man’s job has never bothered me much. For me, what took some adjustment is not being the ‘star of the show.’ By that I mean that, at the Bureau, anyone who is not an agent is considered support; we’re here to help the agents—our clients—to do their job.
“In court, attorneys are center stage, and in firms we’re the moneymakers, so getting second billing was something new for me,” continues Caproni. “Fortunately, the agents are a very appreciative group; and when it comes down to it, there’s nothing better for a lawyer than a happy client.”
Hired by the FBI as a career government employee (as opposed to a political appointee), Caproni can stay with the Bureau indefinitely. She believes strongly, however, that each newly appointed FBI director should have the option to work with the general counsel of his or her choosing; and therefore, when Robert Mueller’s ten-year term ends in 2011, Caproni’s employment status may change. In the meantime, Caproni will continue doing something for her country, and breaking the glass ceiling while she does it. DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the January/February 2009 issue of Diversity & The Bar®