Meet Holly Cook, director of the ABA Governmental Affairs Office
When Holly Cook joined the ABA in January 2012, she brought with her more than two decades of experience in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
Cook, the senior associate executive director of the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and the Center for Public Interest Law, calls on crucial lessons that she learned in the military to support the association and its members. This is particularly evident in her work with the GAO, which operates out of the ABA’s Washington, D.C., office and leads the ABA’s advocacy efforts on issues that matter to the legal profession before Congress, the executive branch and other governmental entities.
Cook spoke with the ABA Journal during the ABA Midyear Meeting in February about the path that she took from Albany Law School of Union University to the association, the importance of the GAO, and what she and its 12 other staff members hope to accomplish with the 118th Congress. The conversation, which has been edited for length, appears below.
From the beginning, where did you grow up, and what inspired you to become a lawyer?
I was born and raised on Long Island. As far as how did I get started in law? When I was in the 10th grade, I went to a private school, and there was a nun teaching a business law class. She wasn’t looking for a particular answer. She was looking to argue a position. And I appreciated that—not telling me, “What is the end result?” but “What do you want the answer to be? And defend your position.” I found it fascinating. I knew from that point that I would go to college and hoped I would go to law school.
Where did you begin your career?
I finished my last year of law school at the University of Maryland. I met my husband, Alan, at my orientation day of law school. He was in the military. He got assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, so I went to my last year of law school to be in the same place. I went back and graduated from Union. I did a judicial clerkship in a trial court in Maryland for a year and then worked for a labor law firm in Baltimore City for another year or two. When he got reassigned to Arizona, I decided, “I am not bar hopping.” I was probably 26 or 27 years old, and taking a bar exam every place he got assigned wasn’t my idea of a great way to practice law. That’s when I decided to join the JAG Corps.
What was it like to work with the military?
I always tell people the easiest part was wearing the uniform and following orders because my education was Catholic grammar school, Catholic high school, Catholic college. It was uniforms. It was rules. I came from a very strict family. Practicing law in the military was interesting. It’s just a microcosm of society, and I loved it. I was in Arizona for one year, and three years after that, I was in [South] Korea. I have been a prosecutor with the same types of trials as anybody else, applying federal law and military law. So rape, murder, larceny, drugs. I have done administrative law, international law. I have pleadings that were filed at the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal at the Hague. I’ve also been in [South] Korea, Bosnia, Baghdad, Germany, Washington, D.C. I spent 23 years on active duty, growing and learning and initially trying to stay competitive for civilian practice because I never thought I’d stay. And then at the 16-year mark, I finally decided, “I’ve got four more years, I might as well stay until retirement” and had the opportunity to do that. I came to the ABA when I retired [as a colonel].
What are some of the lessons you learned during that stage of your career?
When you go in, you’re a junior officer as a lieutenant or captain, and you’re working for colonels and generals. But you get the deference because of your education, your skill and your expertise. As long as you can stand on your own two feet, hold your own and give them competent legal advice, you get the opportunity to grow up fast. You are getting leadership skills that I think in the regular practice of law you may not get as quickly. You’re initially supervising one person, then two or three. In my most senior position, I was the head lawyer in a combat division—which is a big posting—during the [Iraq War] surge, and I had 125 lawyers and paralegals in 14 different locations. Almost every week, my sergeant major (who was also our chief paralegal) and I would get on a helicopter and go check to see how they were doing. It’s a hard environment to practice in. There were threats to their lives, and not everyone came back. One paralegal was killed. One officer was badly injured. It was an area to learn, “You take care of each other in a legal office, and we’re one team.”
Why did you join the ABA?
I thought I was going to Afghanistan and deploying yet again. But I got a phone call one day saying they were looking for someone to come to the Governmental Affairs Office to be the deputy and, depending on what happened in the future, move up to be the director. No promises, but there was that opportunity. I was sitting at the Pentagon, where I worked as the chief legislative counsel coordinating military and civilian nominations across the senior leadership of the Army for confirmation by the U.S. Senate. I loved working with the Hill. So I thought, “All right.” My husband is also a retired JAG colonel. I thought, “Well, he’s already settled.” My son at that time was 8 years old, and I thought the rank of mom was better than anything I could achieve in the military. And I wanted to go someplace where I was inspired by what the people did. The American Bar Association advocates for those people who can’t advocate for themselves. They advocate to improve the rule of law, to help the legal profession. That all appealed to me.
How do you describe the GAO and what it does?
The ABA is a membership organization, and our members have a lot of policy interests. It is our role to listen to what is happening on Capitol Hill and in the federal agencies and inform entities about what’s going on and help them as they decide, “Where does the ABA need to put its voice?” The ABA has over 3,000 active policies. There is no way we can advocate on all of those. We don’t have the resources, and it wouldn’t be effective. So even this weekend, the Board of Governors approved our legislative priorities. We made some recommendations. They approved our top 10 list, and that is going to guide us into these next two years. I look at us as the voice of the national profession in Washington, D.C.
Is there anything members would be surprised about the work of the GAO?
I think they would be surprised by the scope of what GAO works with. There are over 3,000 active policies, and we have 3,500 entities. We help them with policy development; with advocacy letters; meeting with members of Congress and their staffs on the Hill; testimony; blanket authority, which is the entities’ ability to do their own policy; reviewing reports that have any kind of policy recommendations; working with media relations or the general counsel, whether it is on amicus briefs or presidential statements to ensure compliance with policies; and grassroots advocacy. In the last three years, we’ve tried to step up our game in the digital space. If I look at the 117th Congress, there were over 1,600 people that got on the [Grassroots Action Center] website and sent their own messages to Capitol Hill.
As we move into 2023, what are your top priorities for the GAO and the association?
Right now, it’s relationship building with the new Congress. We have a divided government. We have slim majorities in both chambers. We’ll have a presidential election at the end of the two-year period. There will be a lot of bitter debates, and our job is to continue to look for opportunities where there is consensus and where the ABA’s voice can help make some meaningful change.
In your role, you also lead the Center for Public Interest Law. What does that look like?
The Center for Public Interest Law has 11 different entities. It includes Immigration, Children and the Law, Law and Aging, Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Pro Bono. It’s a group of passionate attorneys who truly are supporting vulnerable populations who may not otherwise have access to justice. They get involved in work across the country that helps expand that access or helps train attorneys who are helping these populations. There are over 300 staff in the ABA that work within the Center for Public Interest Law, with Amy Horton-Newell as the director. They do an amazing job, and even more important, they have an amazing impact.
The last couple of questions are a bit more personal. What do you like to do in your free time? And what’s one thing most people at the ABA don’t know about you?
In my free time, I like completely unplugging. I enjoy spending time with my family. We spend every summer on Lake George in New York. We pack up the car, bring everything up there, park the car, and never get back in the car again for the entire week. If we have to do something, we rent a boat. It’s a very relaxing way to get away from everything. Things people may not know about me? I’m an avid gardener. Whether that’s flowers or vegetables, I love growing things in the backyard. Every year I try something new.
ABAJournal.com: “Welcome to the 118th Congress”