There's more than one way to become the first in something. For Sally Quillian Yates, the first woman to be named U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, it was a combination of hard work, wise mentors and luck.
Yates, 53, leads about 100 federal lawyers who prosecute a wide range of crimes, from drug trafficking and white-collar fraud, to child exploitation and cyberthreats. Before being appointed to the position three years ago by President Barack Obama, she spent two decades in the office, rising to become lead prosecutor of high-profile political corruption cases. She also prosecuted Atlanta Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph.
Yates, an Atlanta native, was born with the law in her blood. The UGA law school graduate talks about her background, including how she dealt with a personal tragedy. She also discusses important takeaways from her career, as well as the criminal and financial challenges her office is now facing.
Q: How did your grandmother’s experience help shape your life?
A: I had a much easier road than my grandmother. She was one of the first women admitted to the Georgia Bar. She was incredibly bright and quick-witted.
She would have been a heck of a lawyer. But women weren’t hired as lawyers back then. It just wasn’t done. So instead, she was a secretary, first to my grandfather, who was a lawyer, and then for my father and his brother and their practice.
Interestingly, I don’t remember my grandmother ever complaining about the fact that she was a secretary. Looking back on it, had I been her, I would have resented the heck out of it.
I realized that tenacity counts for a lot. She became a lawyer without support systems. I thought to myself that if she did that, how hard could it be for me.
I think she would have delighted in the fact that I became the first woman to be the U.S. attorney for the Northern District. I couldn’t have done it on my own. I wouldn’t have been first without her and a whole lot of other people, including my dad and other members of my family.
Q: Your dad, Kelley Quillian, had a big influence on your life. He rose up through the legal ranks to become a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals. Shortly after he retired 28 years ago, he committed suicide. How did you get through that time and move forward?
A: As much as I regret my grandmother not being here while I was U.S. attorney, I really regret that my dad hasn't been here. I would have loved sharing my experiences here with him. Even more than that, I would have loved for him to have known his grandchildren.
A lot of people live through traumatic incidents in their lives. Certainly, losing any family member to suicide carries with it a special kind of pain. As traumatic as his death was, over the years I’ve come to not want to define his life, or my time with him, in the manner in which he died, but rather in all those years that he lived.
The manner in which he died was heartbreaking. But there were a whole lot of years prior to that which were not about that. As I think back on my dad, that’s what I really think most about — those years when he lived with a vitality that most people never even come close to.
In terms of possibly helping other suicide survivors, I would not presume to put myself in anybody else’s position. I think we all have a desire to ascribe a rational thought process to figure out why something like that happened. I think that’s the nature of man.
But over the years, I have come to believe that doesn’t really work because, at least for me, it’s trying to ascribe a rational reason to something that, by definition, is an irrational act. None of us ever really know what demons someone is carrying around, or what is going through their head when opportunity and despair come together. So, for me, what has been somewhat comforting is to try to let that go.
Q: Before becoming the U.S. attorney, you prosecuted several high-profile cases, including those involving political corruption and Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph. What did you learn?
A: The Rudolph case was one of the most interesting cases I've ever done. One of the great lessons is that nobody is a success on their own. The case was an example of a whole lot of people coming together to try to solve that case.
I don’t care how good a prosecutor you are. If you hadn’t had really extraordinary FBI and ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) agents who were incredibly dedicated and worked day in and day out literally for years, it wouldn’t matter how good you are. Off all the cases I’ve done, that’s the greatest example of the power of a team.
The leader of a team has to demonstrate their respect for each person’s role on the team. For example, I was no expert on explosives. I needed those experts to teach me so I could convey the important information to the jury. You have to listen.
Also, the best trial lawyers aren’t necessarily the best managers of a group of 25 or 30 lawyers. It’s not the same skill set. Some people are better at communicating and listening than others.
Q: What major challenges are you facing with respect to white-collar crime and federal budget cuts?
A: The new issue we're seeing now is cybercrime — everything from identity theft to computer intrusions. Organized crime, the Russian mob and other Eastern European actors is one area of concern in cybercrime. You can be anywhere in the world and target someone in Atlanta. That's part of what makes us all vulnerable and it's also what creates some of the investigative challenges here — being able to track them down and bring them back.
There’s also an underworld of disorganized crime of loosely affiliated groups of computer geeks who get together in cyberspace and then launch attacks.
As far as budget cuts, sequestration is killing us. This year, we’ve been able to limp through, partially because we had carryover money from the prior years. That won’t happen in the next fiscal year (starting Oct. 1). If we remain sequestered, we won’t be able to replace lawyers who leave and we’ll have to have furlough days. Our goal is to avoid layoffs. We’re still uncertain if we will be able to or not.
On top of that, there been huge cuts to investigations by our law enforcement agencies. One of the things folks don’t realize is that we make money in this office — several times more than our budget — from criminal fines and forfeitures, and civil forfeitures and penalties.
So budget cuts will reduce revenue generation. But the appropriators don’t really look at the fact that we’re a revenue center, not a cost center. When they cut us, it’s not very productive.
Q: What’s your best career advice?
A: The key to professional happiness and success is pursuing what is meaningful to you and pursuing it with a vengeance. I know way too many people who are in powerful, high-paying jobs who don't get much satisfaction from it. They enjoy the lifestyle, but the work isn't terribly meaningful.
That’s where I’ve been incredibly lucky in my professional life. What I do is meaningful to me and has made a difference in the big scheme of things. I realize that we’re not doing Mother Teresa’s work here at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but I do think what we’re doing makes a difference.
I’ve told folks when I’m recruiting them here that it’s worth every penny you don’t make. I know this sounds incredibly corny, but I absolutely believe it — the thrill that comes with saying that you represent the people of the United States, there’s no greater honor that you can have as a lawyer.