Former federal attorney Brendan McGuire has won convictions against some of the world’s worst criminals and terrorists. He successfully prosecuted cases in New York City courtrooms against Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani immigrant who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, and Abduwali Muse, a Somali pirate who hijacked Captain Richard Phillip’s American-flagged cargo ship (that drama was captured in the 2013 Oscar-nominated thriller “Captain Phillips”). This spring, he moved to the private sector, joining the law firm WilmerHale where he helps white-collar clients identify illegal money laundering, fend off cybersecurity attacks and comprehend the complexities of international trade law. In a conversation with NationSwell, McGuire reflected on the value of his public service and what the country can do to attract younger workers to government jobs.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
The best advice I’ve been given is really rooted in communication and understanding how to make those with whom you’re working feel invested in whatever it is they’re doing. Obviously that can take a number of forms. But in many respects, some of the most effective leaders have been those who attempt to build up the people they work with in such a way that, in theory, the leader could be rendered irrelevant.
A really formative experience for me was playing basketball in college. I had two coaches who understood that you don’t need the five best players on a team to win a championship. What you need are the five most complementary players, players who are going to do different things and have different strengths and weakness. But ultimately, they must be prepared to surrender themselves to the mission of the team. [This was instrumental] for me in setting goals once I entered the professional world.
What’s on your nightstand?
Right now I am reading a biography of George Washington, which approaches him in a frankly different way: not as the first president of the country or as the first great general, but as the first entrepreneur in the United States. It is an interesting, different take on a relatively well-known figure. And then I’ve got a bunch of other half-read books about terrorism and intelligence, which is what on what I focus on for work.
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
Law enforcement, in many ways, is a very traditional field that is often playing catch-up with the next innovative criminal method or criminal objective. One of the true challenges now, which the current administration has made a real effort toward, is trying to harness technological innovation to support the country’s intelligence and its counterterrorism and other law enforcement efforts. Continuing to foster a productive relationship among Silicon Valley, younger generations and the intelligence community will be key to national security. Doing so will also dispose with the myth that the government, in aiming to protect us, is always trying to spy on us and dispel any misconception, particularly among younger Americans, that they can’t feel good about serving the country. There is an ability to balance privacy and security. To me, the most important innovation we should be focused on is really a human one, and that is continually trying to make government service, particularly in the cyber field, as appealing as possible — that’s the direction the world is heading in and for which there will be an incredible need in this country and around the world.
You’ve prosecuted some tough, high-profile cases, and I imagine they caused a lot of sleepless nights. Where do you find your inner motivation?
There’s a lot of cynicism about certain aspects of government today, and that can allow for misconceptions about working in government. Many people who have served in government in different capacities will often tell you that it is the most rewarding job they’ve ever had – that it combines the privilege of serving with a job where your self-interest aligns with the public’s. When you’re able to do that, there’s real potential for significant satisfaction, because you’re doing something that is both personally fulfilling and serves a higher cause. It can be very challenging work; there are nights without necessarily a great deal of sleep. But for those who find fulfilling government jobs, that’s a very small price to pay.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
Focus most of your time on doing your job, and don’t obsess over the next job. Often, those coming out of school and graduate programs feel pressure to script their professional narrative from day one, which means they’re spending time figuring out their next chapter as opposed to doing the best job they can in their current chapter. You can’t be blind to the future but, in many respects, the next thing will take care of itself if you prove yourself to those you work with. If you treat people with respect and do what you’ve been hired to do, a lot of things will present themselves naturally.
What’s your perfect day?
I wish I could tell you that I’ve discovered the formula, but for me, the perfect day is not having to check my phone and getting to look instead at my two kids for as many hours of the day as I can. Probably, at this point, with a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old, it’s as simple and boring as that.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
Professionally speaking, it was being sworn in as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York. It was a position that my father had when he was younger. It was the job that I had sought for many, many years, and one that I always had hoped would be my dream job. And it ended up being that. Looking back on it now, that day where they actually let me in the building and I held up my right hand to be sworn in is probably the day I’m most proud of.
What don’t most people know about you?
I’ve mounted my own private protest: I have refused to attend a New York Knicks game for about 10 years because of the team’s current ownership.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.
Homepage photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.