Robert Tanenbaum’s legal journey is a reminder of just how much things can change, even when you feel like you know exactly what you are supposed to be doing in life. “I didn’t really enjoy law school,” Tanenbaum recalls frankly of his student days. “I wasn’t one of those students who always knew they wanted to be a lawyer.” Rather, Tanenbaum had been bound and determined to pursue a career in government, with or without a law degree. The JD had seemed like effective résumé padding, if nothing else.
How then does a reluctant attorney with the intent of working for the CIA wind up a managing director and associate general counsel for Navient, one of the largest student loan servicing corporations in the world?
“Rejection paved the way for my career,” Tanenbaum says, laughing. “In retrospect, I never would have imagined being an in-house attorney. I love it, and I’m fortunate that it played out this way.”
Rejection may have informed the lawyer’s early career moves, but it isn’t what’s made him an effective litigator at Navient, where he holds that rare in-house position managing litigation full-time. The AGC’s unorthodox journey has provided a wealth of experience that helped Tanenbaum earn his in-house role and, ultimately, turn down the job interview for which he had been waiting his entire career.
Building Toward Something Else
With every move Tanenbaum made from his law school graduation in 2007 on, he was intending to find a way to carve out a career in government: an internship with the Department of Defense, an externship with the Department of Justice Counterterrorism Section, a two-year federal clerkship for the Honorable Judge Harold A. Ackerman. At the same time, the young attorney was applying for any relevant position he could, at agencies including the CIA and the NSA. But something wasn’t clicking, and Tanenbaum wasn’t sure why.
“Once you do a clerkship, you’re really on track to becoming a litigator,” he says. “You’re almost wasting that clerkship experience if you don’t work to apply it, and so that’s what I did.”
Tanenbaum went into private practice, cultivating extensive litigation experience. “I learned so many additional skills,” Tanenbaum says. “I was taking depositions and learning what it means to have a client and what client service really means.” He took his first case to trial and found, despite his reticence, that he performed quite well under pressure.
“I really learned how to say yes to virtually anything that was thrown at me,” Tanenbaum remembers. “As part of client service, I wanted to be positive and find a way to take on whatever I could. I found that good things come your way when you do that.” Navient was that next good thing.
Coming in-house at Navient provided more than just Tanenbaum’s first business-focused role. Before accepting the position, the attorney had agreed to another interview at the CIA, months in advance, and Tanenbaum virtually forgot it about upon going in-house. It was his chance to go for the role he thought he’d always wanted. “But I already loved it at Navient,” the AGC says. “I had made my first really conscious decision to take a role that wasn’t just going through the first available door that had been opened for me, and this felt right. I canceled the interview.”
Playing Offensive Defense
Recently, Tanenbaum has been promoted to managing director, widening his responsibilities while, at the same time, learning to dial back some of the skills that had made him so effective in the firm world. “It took some time to learn that I was in a more collaborative and business-focused environment,” the AGC says. “As a litigator in private practice, aggression tends to be rewarded both in practicing and in your career. Here, the focus is on helping the business, not on pounding your chest or pounding the table.”
But that doesn’t mean the lawyer’s previous experience doesn’t come in handy from time to time. The rise of “debt-relief” companies misleading customers into defaulting on their loans and filing unwarranted lawsuits against loan servicers required more than a solid defense. “These are practices that can ultimately ruin our customers’ credit, and something we were hearing about all over the place,” Tanenbaum says. The legal team launched two racketeering lawsuits in the Eastern District of Virginia in 2017 and 2019 against unscrupulous “debt-relief” companies and attorneys.
The lawyer says that directing Navient’s outside counsel to go to court or arbitration when it is warranted has helped discourage pointless litigation and baseless claims. Although he may no longer have an interest in working in national security, Tanenbaum still employs a Latin phrase that is well known among military organizations: “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (“If you want peace, prepare for war”).
When it comes to real wins, Tanenbaum has clearly triumphed career-wise, excelling in a role that turned out to be his dream job. Not bad for an accidental attorney.
“Robert Tanenbaum combines exceptional legal acumen with business-savvy insights. I’ve worked with many in-house counsel over the years, and he’s one of the best. Congratulations on this impressive recognition.”
–Michelle Cohen, Member
“Robert is what every outside counsel looks for in a client. In addition to his breadth of substantive knowledge, Robert is a true partner with outside counsel to develop and implement a practical and collaborative litigation strategy.”
–Eric M. Hurwitz, Partner and Cochair, Financial Services Litigation