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From C-Suites to Refugees, Ricardo Castro Knows Crisis

July 8, 2019, 8:50 AM

Ricardo Castro is no stranger to crisis. In fact, he thrives on it.

As general counsel of George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, and lead attorney at the Clinton Foundation 2016, he learned how to work for “people who are lightning rods,” and roll up his sleeves for a wide range of fast-paced and high-profile legal work.

Things were no different on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, Castro’s first day as general counsel of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organization that provides emergency aid and long-term assistance to refugees. It was just three days after President Donald Trump issued the first travel ban on people from Muslim-majority countries.

“The first thing was figuring out where the restroom was,” Castro said of his first morning in the IRC’s Midtown Manhattan office. “And after I did that, it was huddling with a lot of people here.”

The issue required a multi-departmental approach: leaders from the organization’s programs, marketing, advocacy, communications, finance, and legal departments all had a say in how the IRC would respond.

“We actually turn towards crisis,” Castro said of the organization.

Most general counsel are familiar with crisis management, but not all face the political spotlight. Since leaving Big Law, Castro has worked for a number of nonprofits in the public eye on issues from the AIDS crisis to the Trump administration’s border policies.

To the Political Spotlight

Castro didn’t know it when he applied for the general counsel role at the IRC, but his family has a long history with the organization. His parents, refugees from Cuba, received assistance from the IRC in Miami in the early 1960s.

Castro grew up in New Jersey and chose NYU School of Law for its robust focus public interest law. But after clerking for a judge, he took jobs in Big Law to pay off his student loans.

He was an associate at McCarter & English before moving to Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, where he worked on Latin American securities transactions.

“I don’t regret for a minute having done law firm work,” Castro said. “I actually found it to be a really good way to acquire skills.” As a Spanish-speaker, he also had the opportunity to travel to visit clients in Mexico and Chile.

“But the day after I sent in my last student loan payment, I resigned,” he added. “Very literally the next day.”

He became a staff attorney for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a New York-based nonprofit that provides direct services to people living with HIV/AIDS. It was a job that frequently took him to Manhattan housing court, where he represented clients facing eviction. He also represented clients in discrimination and immigration cases.

After about four years, Castro moved on to an associate general counsel role at Open Society Institute. Within 10 years, he was general counsel.

There, Castro got his first taste of working for a boss in the political spotlight. The organization’s founder, investor George Soros, is a well-known supporter of progressive causes and has drawn frequent criticism from political conservatives.

Castro left in 2013 for roles at the Ford Foundation and then Consumer Reports. By 2016, he again had a famous boss while working as general counsel of the Clinton Foundation.

“Every day was a real adrenaline rush that year,” he said of the presidential election year in which Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee. “Every day there was some new increasingly outlandish and crazy accusation about the Clinton Foundation.”

Each morning, senior leadership met to review the newest allegations and decide which needed to be debunked and which should be ignored.

“Sometimes the comeback was actually a legal argument,” Castro said. “The more outlandish the claims became, “the more motivated we felt to get the truth out there.”

Refugee Resettlement

Since joining the IRC, Castro has had his hands full in “a wild mix of things.”

It’s one of nine resettlement agencies funded by the State Department. IRC estimates that it has settled approximately 400,000 refugees in the U.S. since World War II.

Since Trump took office, the number of refugees entering the U.S. has “plummeted,” according to Castro. In 2018, the administration set a cap of 45,000 refugees but admitted about half, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. The 2019 cap was lowered to 30,000, and in the first six months of the year, the country admitted 12,154 refugees.

“It’s a real shame,” Castro said.

Nevertheless, the organization is doing what it can to help those migrants and refugees who do come to the U.S.

The IRC is currently working to help open a shelter where migrants can stay while they figure out their next step. Castro said he and his legal team have been busy figuring out what kinds of permits are required, what laws apply to the space, who is providing insurance, what security measures will be taken, and more.

“You have to be resourceful,” Castro said. “No one on my team is going to learn permitting law in Phoenix, so we have to find some lawyers in Phoenix who hopefully will help us pro bono.”

Castro said he works with Big Law firms in the U.S. and abroad, citing DLA Piper as one with most “extraordinary” commitment to pro bono work.

When he’s not managing crises at the IRC, Castro also manages the organization’s internal audits and its ethics and compliance unit. It’s his job to make sure the organization manages its risk with the right infrastructure and protocols in place.

But Castro is far less risk-averse than lawyers are typically known for being.

It’s one thing if IRC program staff asked to open up shop in an active conflict zone, which might be too risky. But there are other risks that are worth taking, according to Castro. Sometimes, things don’t need to be “100 percent right”— they just need to be “good enough.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Russell-Kraft in New York at srussellkraft@gmail.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com