A prestigious law school graduate may handle big cases, but Michael Wautlet (’08) takes working on prominent matters to another level. In July 2016, he wrapped up a yearlong position at the White House as the director for nuclear energy policy, where he worked on the energy and climate scene, rallied countries to use cleaner energy, and helped further U.S. objectives for the president’s visit to Vietnam, the G20 and G7, and the Paris Climate Conference.
“It was not only rewarding for me, but pretty important for the future of the country,” Wautlet said. “Having a seat at the table on cross-cutting national security policy discussions and helping to shape the policy-making process was an opportunity few people have. Despite the extremely long hours involved, I consider myself lucky and would gladly do it again.”
Wautlet’s meteoric rise to working on the National Security Council Staff at the White House has been the result of extensive education and experience. Colorado Law graduates are well-educated, but Wautlet reaches another level. He studied French and political science at Furman University for undergrad, received a BME in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, an MBA in International Business from Florida Atlantic University, and graduated Order of the Coif from the University of Colorado Law School. He laughs it off with humility.
“I’m the poster child for indecision,” Wautlet joked. “Or at least for wanting to try out new things.”
Wautlet has always enjoyed traveling. He’s put his knowledge of French to use as a frequent traveler to French-speaking countries. He’s been backpacking on every continent, including Antarctica, and spent a month as a volunteer to help build a school in Botswana. After growing up in the Southeast, the desire to travel led him to enter the U.S. Navy. He wanted to work on a submarine, which required education he did not yet have. So he earned a second bachelor’s from Georgia Tech in mechanical engineering to pursue his dream of working on a submarine in Hawaii (which he did). But submarine life wasn’t all Wautlet dreamed it would be. He didn’t get much time to enjoy Hawaii.
“Hawaii was fantastic, but we averaged nine months a year underwater, then we worked a normal work week in port,” Wautlet said. “I averaged three weeks a year off the boat.”
So he made the switch to nuclear power, which recruits heavily from the Navy because of its well-respected nuclear power training program. He was hired by Florida Power and Light to work at the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant as the operations section supervisor, which he did for just over a year before realizing that operations at a civilian power plant lacked the excitement of a world-traveling submarine reactor.
One benefit of his time in the Navy was the GI Bill, which he used to attend night school for his MBA and then Colorado Law in 2004. He considered other law schools, but after flying in for prospective student day and talking with students, he knew immediately that Colorado Law was the community he wanted to join. According to Wautlet, Colorado Law students were not only among the nation’s most highly qualified, but also the friendliest. On one hand, they worked hard, but on the other they played hard—from hiking to snowboarding to volunteering. He met students with a diverse set of passions—American Indian law, environmental law, patent prosecution, and public defense. In comparison, students he talked to at other schools consistently advised that law school was just three years to press through—something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed.
So Colorado Law became the obvious choice. Though he enrolled in the fall of 2004 and things seemed to be on track, the unexpected happened. That September, doctors diagnosed his mother with breast cancer. By October, it progressed to stage four and in November, she passed away.
“Nothing challenged me so personally, or changed me so deeply, than losing my mother,” Wautlet said. “Her compassion was boundless, and she always placed others first, right to the end.” Though he withdrew from Colorado Law that semester to support his father, he reapplied and returned the next year.
Following the completion of his first year, he went for the nontraditional once again, taking an unpaid summer internship with the U.S. Department of State. When applying, he asked to work in a “hardship post, in a French-speaking country in Western Africa if possible.” So they sent him to the U.S. Embassy in Conakry, Guinea, following an attempted coup. The government was then cracking down on human rights and civil society. There, Wautlet reported on the court system that denied prisoners pre-trial hearings and trials, as well as the disappearance of hundreds of children after villagers had protested against the president. On one trip to the center of the country, he and his colleague received a live chicken as a gift from village elders, which he promptly turned over to the embassy after the eight-hour bumpy return trip with the chicken clucking in the back seat.
“I was always interested in the State Department,” Wautlet said. “I wanted to get the idea whether I would enjoy working overseas because it was a test run for entering the Foreign Service. I had the opportunity to investigate rights violations. It was a sobering experience, but at the time I was still focused on my law career.”
While interning at a U.S. embassy in a foreign country is far from what the typical law student does in his or her 1L summer, Wautlet enjoyed it, but took a more traditional path after that. He joined the yearlong Criminal Defense Clinic, interned at the Denver District Attorney’s Office, and worked at a firm. He interned for Faegre & Benson (now Faegre Baker Daniels LLP) after his 2L year and accepted a job there after graduation. Less than a year later, he felt public service calling him back. After the 2008 election, Wautlet received a call offering him an appointment to the Foreign Service. On his first assignment in Abuja, Nigeria, he covered the conflict in the Niger Delta and regional peacekeeping operations. He later worked as a consular and economic officer in London, where he covered climate and clean energy. In between, he received a call to active duty in the Navy Reserves—during which he spent a year in Afghanistan as the executive officer of a 124-member civilian and military provincial reconstruction team (PRT).
“In Afghanistan, I was recalled to military duty on a PRT,” Wautlet said. “It was a province that had less than 50 percent literacy (far less for women), extreme poverty, and almost no rights for women. We were working with the provincial government to improve the rule of law, set up free and fair elections, build schools, restore watersheds, and slowly rebuild the communities. No job has ever challenged me professionally more than that.”
After spending five years overseas, Wautlet decided it was time to come home. He took a position at the Department of State in Washington, D.C. in the nuclear energy policy office—coming full circle to where his studies began. There, he worked closely with his interagency colleagues on issues such as the cleanup of Chernobyl, the Convention on Nuclear Safety, and the G7. In the right place at the right time, he was tapped by the National Security Council to be the director for nuclear energy policy. There, he worked to organize the first-ever White House Summit on Nuclear Energy. Senior leaders from across the government and private sector came together to highlight the strategic importance that U.S. leadership in civil nuclear energy plays toward our country’s climate goals, national security objectives, and the setting of high standards in nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation. He helped drive three follow-up summits calling attention to the premature economic shutdown of U.S. nuclear plants domestically and Russia’s use of nuclear exports for foreign policy leverage rather than economic gain globally.
“Nuclear energy, like all forms of energy, has challenges still to address, but its importance and impact on U.S. climate and national security objectives cannot be ignored,” Wautlet said. “For decades, the United States has led the world in setting the highest nuclear safety standards. That leadership, along with our ability to innovate the best technology, is why we can and do set the gold standard that other countries choose to model.”
Though the NSC job came with long hours, it brought tremendous opportunity. For one, he got to work at the White House, which is as rewarding and memorable as one would expect.
“After a while, you find yourself taking for granted where you come to work,” Wautlet said. “Then it’s 9 or 10:00 at night. You look up from your BlackBerry while walking past the West Wing and see tourists in the distance taking photos beyond the gate on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is then you can’t help but pause, look up at the lights shining on the flag above the White House, and smile. Knowing I got to work there, with some of the most talented people I know, those moments will be with me forever.”
What is your fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law?
Standing on stage at the podium during graduation and seeing all of my classmates glow with happiness and self-accomplishment. There truly is something special about the students and faculty of Colorado Law.
What do you know now that you wish you had known in law school?
When it comes to long-term job prospects and networking, carving out time to meet and make friends with fellow classmates is equally important as making the grades.
What advice would you give to current students as they’re preparing to graduate?
Most people join law school for a reason, and a passion. In my case, it was to become the next Jack McCoy. Don’t lose track of this. Find your passion and run with it, even if the choice means you won’t be highly compensated. With passion and purpose, everything else falls into place.
Who was the biggest influence on your career?
My father and mother. Each time I told them the next wild idea I had for my life—whether studying 19th century French naturalism and realism, doing a 180 to engineering, joining the military and submarines, trekking through Africa, working at a law firm, or joining the Foreign Service—they stood by me, always with love, support, and sound advice.
Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
Marrying Heather, the love of my life, gaining an amazing family, and somehow convincing my stepson Benjamin that doing every problem in the book can and will eventually make math fun ( . . . still working on this last one).