Alumnus, combat veteran founds firm that specializes in high-risk and high-threat areas
Joe Fluet (JD 99) maneuvers through stories of legal work in the United Arab Emirates, Colombia and the Caribbean, backtracking and sidestepping lingual landmines, offering cryptic stories and a few teases.
When the United States Department of Defense is a major client, secrecy is the name of the game. So it’s the stuff that Fluet, a combat veteran who holds a top-secret government clearance, won’t say that really piques the interest.
“There are so many more stories I wish I could tell you about that are a lot more fun than that,” the Washington, D.C., lawyer said with a laugh. “But that’s all I can tell you.”
Fluet is founding partner of Fluet Huber + Hoang, a small, full-service firm that specializes in high-risk and high-threat areas like Iraq and Afghanistan and non-permissive environments where U.S. presence is minimal.
“(Non-permissive environments) is a fancy way of saying ‘We will go where others won’t,’” Fluet said.
And he certainly does.
“My assistant had to go to the State Department last week to go get me more (passport) pages,” Fluet said. “I still have years left in my passport, but I ran out of pages.”
More than a few of Fluet’s passport stamps come from Afghanistan where Fluet “basically built a special operations unit from scratch.”
Fluet, who retired in November 2009 as a lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Armed Forces after 21 years of active and reserved service, spent a year in the war-ravaged nation in 2004 to build a counter-narcotics unit. Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world’s non-pharmaceutical opiates, and Fluet isn’t bashful to say his unit is still flying strong today.
“I don’t know if I would have retired if I wasn’t doing the work I’m doing,” Fluet said of his legal work in hostile environments like Afghanistan and elsewhere. “I feel like I’m still in the game.”
The truth is, Fluet never really retired. He’s an attorney now, but he’s much the same military man he always has been. “I always wanted to be a soldier, but I always had law in the back of my mind,” he said.
His firm’s website reads almost like a Middle East brochure, with pictures of the so-called non-permissive environments, photos of Fluet in combat uniform inside a helicopter and written promises like “We can deploy a select team of attorneys … virtually anywhere around the world on short notice.”
And the firm’s military psyche (three of the firm’s lawyers are Afghanistan veterans) might spill over a little bit in the interview process for young lawyers.
“We have a joke around here that says we’ll hire an attorney who can win a bar fight,” Fluet said.
While he often peppers his speech with laughs, the jokes stop when he talks about his time in Afghanistan.
“The poverty, the crime, the weather that the Afghan people have to experience every day would be almost incomprehensible to a lot of us,” Fluet said. “Afghanistan is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.”
After spending eight years in active duty, Fluet entered the Army Reserves while he attended UF Law in the late 1990s. He clerked for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after graduation, and then took a job with the firm Williams & Connolly, a firm with strong military ties. Eighteen months after taking that job, Fluet was on his way to Afghanistan to create the special forces unit where he lived alongside Afghan pilots, training them, living with them and experiencing life, as he calls it, “outside the wire.”
“When they leave their base, (troops) go ‘outside the wire,’” Fluet explained. “Many troops never go outside the wire. It’s dangerous. But by virtue of what I did, I had to make arrangements to go inside the wire.”
When he returned from the Middle East people told Fluet that his overseas experience in high-risk areas should persuade him to start a boutique law firm and capitalize on that experience.
But Fluet’s not a huge fan of limits.
“I get just as excited to help the dry cleaner down the street renegotiate her lease as I do helping an international client close a billion-dollar deal,” he said.
Whether he’s playing the role of Afghan combat veteran, experienced attorney or bar fight enthusiast, France Hoang, one of Fluet’s law partners, has learned a few things about Fluet during the past decade.
“Thank goodness the only fights we’ll have will be in the courtroom,” Hoang said.