The top lawyer at the Department of Defense encouraged law students to enter public service on Wednesday in front of a crowd of over 100 at Yale Law School.

Jeh Johnson, general counsel of the United States Department of Defense, explained how legal principles shape his office’s work in the government’s counterterrorism efforts. Although the courts are frequently bypassed in national security decisions, he said the Department of Defense includes a strong group of lawyers within the executive branch who are dedicated to maintaining the rule of law.

“We must not make [principles] up to suit the moment,” Johnson said. “We must guard against aggressive interpretations of our authority.”

Johnson argued that conventional legal principles — like the Geneva Conventions — should be maintained. Still, he said the work of lawyers in the department involves creating a vigorous internal debate about the extent of the law. The standards of evidence required in the executive branch differ from what most people in the audience would associate with federal rules of evidence. For example, decisions about whether an armed group is a belligerent against the United States and can be targeted often need to be made in short periods of time.

“There is no bar to the use of hearsay in assessing an intelligence picture,” Johnson explained.

At the end of the talk, Johnson explained that the main purpose of his talk was to appeal to the students to consider working as lawyers in the public sector. He said one of his greatest disappointments was seeing young people give up public service because of the need to repay loans, or the lure of large law firms and high starting salaries.

“We need talented lawyers serving in government at all levels,” Johnson said. “Your legal career will be summed up not by what you got, but what you gave.”

Four attendees interviewed were generally positive about the Obama administration’s handling of national security law and about Johnson’s call to service. Asher Smith LAW ’14 praised the Obama administration’s handling of thorny legal issues in counterterrorism.

“Even though it’s easy to say there are a lot of similarities between what the Bush and Obama administrations did, there is a difference in how [U.S.] efforts are portrayed,” Smith said, citing multilateralism in the NATO-led effort in Libya.

Two students said while they understood the value of entering public service, they planned to spend time in the private sector first. Albert Nah, LAW ’14, said he has always been “interested in public service … [but] the [private] firm is a stepping stone.”

Many law schools, including Yale’s, offer programs that partially subsidize tuition loan payments for graduates who enter relatively low-salary careers.