Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky 
worked her way from associate to partner at a large Washington, D.C., law firm and became an expert on global trade and investment. When Bill Clinton was elected president, she was asked by Mickey Kantor, the President’s newly appointed U.S. Trade Representative, to serve as his deputy. This position carried with it the title of Ambassador and was a sub-cabinet position, requiring confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Barshefsky hesitated and initially told Kantor no—she and her husband had two small children, and she loved the practice she had at her law firm. Kantor, who had met Barshefsky only once, was evidently impressed, and he begged her to reconsider. 

“I thought it over for about 10 days—which in the annals of Washington is unheard of for what is considered one of the plum jobs in government,” says Barshefsky. “Ultimately, I was commuting to work with my husband down one of the major roads, and my husband said, ‘You need to call Mickey Kantor and tell him yes or no. You’re really keeping him waiting, and you just need to decide.’ I said, ‘I remain very torn; I need a sign.’ At that moment—this is a true story—a white car passed us in the next lane and the license plate on that car said G-O-4-I-T, ‘Go for it.’ I said, ‘Oh my goodness! That’s the sign,’ and I went to my office, called Mickey Kantor, and took the job.” 

Barshefsky served as deputy and acting U.S. Trade Representative from 1993 to 1997 and, for the remaining four years of the Clinton Administration, as the U.S. Trade Representative and a member of the President’s cabinet. The Clinton administration sealed more than 300 trade agreements during those eight years, including the completion of: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); the Uruguay Round; global agreements in financial services, telecom, high tech products, and cyberspace; and China’s WTO Agreement, of which Barshefsky was also the architect and lead negotiator. During this period, she notes, U.S. exports exceeded more than one trillion dollars for the first time in history.

“It was a very rewarding experience on so many levels,” she says. “Especially the honor of working with the President of the United States.”

Barshefsky returned to private practice at WilmerHale in Washington, D.C., where she chairs the international trade, investment, and market access practice group. She advises multinational corporations on their global strategy and government relations, market access, investment and litigation matters, and negotiations with governments and private parties. She is a member of and has been honored by many professional organizations, and serves on the boards of directors of the Intel Corporation, American Express Company, Estée Lauder Companies, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has been listed with Best Lawyers since 2005 for international trade and finance law and government relations.