SAINT PAUL - Alex Webb collaborates with engineers, biologists, and other experts to keep communities safe from flood risk posed by several major river systems within the boundaries of the St. Paul District of the Army Corps of Engineers. Since the 1970s, and more recently in response to record-breaking floods of 2011 on the Souris River, the Corps has constructed levees and conducted studies to evaluate water supply and flood control options. Most recently, Alex has advised his team on a multi-phase flood control project on the Souris River that will provide protection to adjacent North Dakota communities.
Alex primarily provides advice and guidance to the Corps’ Civil Works Program, which encompasses projects that develop and manage the Nation’s water resources, support commercial navigation, restore, protect and manage aquatic ecosystems, manage flood risks, and provide sustainable, economic, and technically sound services. As a legal advisor on projects such as those on the Souris River, Alex is required to understand and provide advice in several areas of law.
"I see my role as a holistic advisor to the project delivery team and the district leadership," Alex said. "Sometimes we’ll be tasked to review reports, whether a feasibility report or some type of design report and provide a legal sufficiency review. The legal review will cover everything from NEPA compliance and real property Fifth Amendment concerns, to making sure that the project authority is being used appropriately in accordance with the Congressional authorization and administration policy. Sometimes, there will also be an ethical issue that comes up or an issue with fiscal law."
Civil Works projects are important to local communities and are often complex and heavily scrutinized. Alex enjoys the multi-faceted legal analysis that comes with these projects as well as the opportunity to problem solve.
"The most exciting part of being a Corps attorney is not just doing what you’re expected to do," Alex said. "But also going above and beyond that and helping the client see problems that they don’t realize they have while at the same time coming up with solutions to fix them."
Civil works programs ensure the Nation’s infrastructure functions to support the economy while complying with laws that protect the environment and promote sustainability.
"I enjoy the public service aspect of what we do," he said. "It definitely makes the work more meaningful and enjoyable. You know you’re helping to improve the lives of taxpayers and citizens by providing good advice to clients in order to get the project done on time and within schedule. You’re making a real impact to people’s lives and that brings more joy to what I do as an attorney."
Alex’s journey to law school and to the Corps was influenced by his upbringing in the suburb of University City, ten minutes outside of downtown St. Louis, Missouri. Alex was the youngest of three children.
"We were fortunate to have hardworking parents that helped provide my siblings and I with a lot of opportunities," he said. "Together, my mom and dad did a great job raising us and helping us stay focused and committed to improving ourselves."
Alex credits his family for providing the mindset and the attributes that have enabled him to succeed.
Alex’s parents graduated from college, his brother graduated from pharmacy school and his sister earned a master’s degree in business administration around the time Alex attended law school. The dedication to education and the achievements of his family provided Alex with the desire and confidence to pursue an advanced degree.
"I felt like if my brother can do it, I can do it," Alex said. "He and I are cut from the same cloth. The fact that he was smart enough to get through pharmacy school made me feel like I could go through law school. We have a little competition. Whatever he would do, I would try to copy or do better. That brotherly competition helped give me the confidence to go to law school, as well as the drive to finish it."
Alex indicated that his parents’ example still influences his work habits.
"My parents were great role models for me, especially my dad when it comes to my academic and professional success," he said. "My dad worked two jobs to afford the best education and housing for my family. His work ethic is something I try to emulate in my job as an attorney with the Corps."
"My mom worked as a juvenile officer and was required to spend a lot of time with troubled youth. My mom imparted to us the wisdom of working hard and staying out of trouble," he said. "Anytime we messed up at home she would tell us what the consequences could be if we broke the law and ended up in her court. Not disappointing my mom was a constant motivating force for us to behave and stay out of trouble."
Alex’s mother also instilled an early intellectual interest in law through discussions and debates that covered the spectrum from religious and political issues to food and travel.
"I loved to have debates with people, especially my mom," Alex said. "When she had her mind set on something, it was hard to convince her otherwise. I always wanted to see how far I could go in changing her mind on something. I was not often successful, but I enjoyed and appreciated the back and forth that we had. I was drawn to the law, in part, because I knew that it was a profession that involved critical thinking and making creative arguments."
"My mom wanted to be an attorney growing up," he said. "She loves to have engaging discussions and exchanges with people, especially me. She created a pretty open and loving environment of respectfully voicing your opinion. I knew that she listened to my opinion even if it did not change her mind."
While school was a priority during the week, Sundays were spent at the Lively Stone Church of God, a historical African American church in North St. Louis. Alex’s father served as a steward and his mother also took on various leadership roles. Alex and his siblings served as ushers and assisted in videorecording services.
"My parents, both educationally and spiritually, helped prepare us for the world," he said. "It was an important aspect of my life growing up and meeting people from all walks of life at our church."
Church services involved singing, shouting, dancing, revivals and spoken sermons that often featured visiting pastors.
"Hearing a unique perspective on the gospel from various leaders in the St. Louis African American community was very influential," he said. "It shaped me—my views and interactions with other people."
The church provided a foundation for Alex in many ways.
"We just felt comfortable at church and could freely be ourselves—that this is who we are and where we belong," he said. "My church was not just a place where you basically went on Sundays. It was a very strong-knit African American community that spoke to you not just about God, but about slavery, injustice, and the segregation movement. A lot of what I learned about African American history and people came through the church."
"One of the most powerful memories I had growing up was a church trip where we went to Memphis to see the place where Dr. King was shot at the Lorraine Motel. Getting to talk to the people there and learning firsthand what happened and how that moment shaped our history was very moving to me. My church was a stalwart in the community for getting people organized, getting them educated and sharing the history of how we got here and where we’re going."
While growing up, Alex gained perspective by interacting with individuals in a broad range of socio-economic circumstances.
"St. Louis was unique in that way," he said. "There’s a lot of people on both sides of the spectrum. My life was influenced by going to church and school with people who were wealthy and people who were much poorer. Getting to interact with people who are in both categories was something that shaped my development."
The stratification of society was pronounced in St. Louis, which often left Alex pondering his place at school.
"In the cafeteria on one side of the room, there would be a lot of black and minority students sitting by themselves and then on the other side you see the white students together," Alex said. "With my dad working two jobs and my mom also working, we were able to afford a fairly nice home. But at the same time, I don’t know that I fit in with some of my white peers who were wealthier than me. Going to church in North St. Louis gave me the chance to meet a lot of people that didn’t have both parents working, or a mom or dad who wasn’t at home. They had a much different experience than I did. I was somewhere in the middle and sometimes that was challenging, having to navigate that dynamic."
"A lot of my childhood, and especially high school years, were spent trying to figure out who I am. Where do I belong? Where am I going? One of the things that kind of led me to law school is just trying to find out who I am as a person. I wanted to learn how to think critically and reason."
Reading books were important during those formative years.
"When I got to high school, I really took up reading as a hobby as a way to learn and escape from the daily struggle of life," Alex said. "I really enjoyed getting to immerse myself into something that was different or unique. I read books ranging from biographies and historical fiction novels to John Grisham books, which got me more interested in the law."
While in high school, Alex had the opportunity to shadow an African American lawyer from a law firm in St. Louis and began to envision a career in law.
"I was a little overwhelmed by how busy he was and how much he had to write and read every day," Alex said. "A part of me was intimidated by going to law school and being a lawyer. But as I went through college, I gained more confidence in my ability to excel academically and manage difficult assignments. By junior and senior year of college I was less intimidated by law school. I knew that I could do it but that it would be a lot of work. I would really have to commit myself to excelling."
Alex decided to attend Saint Louis University after being attracted to their mission of public service and their international study abroad programs. He lived at home while attending the university and his business class curriculum sparked more interest in the law.
"I took a logic class and a game theory class that were intellectually rigorous in teaching me how to think and strategize about problems or issues," he said. "When I graduated in the late 2000s, we were still enduring the financial crisis that started in 2008. A lot of businesses weren’t hiring as many people as they were prior to that time. As a way to buy time until the economy got a little bit better, I started to give law school much higher consideration."
While at the university, a semester abroad opened Alex’s mind to new possibilities.
"One of the biggest impacts of my life was studying abroad for a semester in Madrid, Spain," he said. "It was my first time away from my family outside of the country in a new environment that I had to navigate on my own. That experience really pushed me spiritually, mentally, physically, and emotionally. It had an impact on my thought process and how I felt and viewed my place in the world. One of the reasons I ended up going to law school is that I wanted to shape the world in a better way. I wanted to travel, meet other people and have an impact on other people’s lives – not just in St. Louis – but across the world."
After graduating with a business degree, Alex attended Vanderbilt University Law School with a plan to focus on corporate law. He took a lot of business transaction type of classes and was involved in the international arbitration association. Alex was also on the Honors Council and a member of the Black Law Students Association.
"Even though I was one of the few black students in my law school, I definitely felt welcome there," Alex said. "Everyone I met in law school – no matter the race or color of the individual– was very accomplished and sharp."
During his third year in law school, Alex learned about the Army Corps of Engineers when they conducted on campus interviews. Although working for the government was different than the corporate work he had envisioned, he was intrigued and decided to apply to the Chief Counsel’s honors attorney program.
"It took a while to hear back from the Corps so I kind of assumed that my application was not accepted," he said.
Alex received a call asking if he was interested in the Corps of Engineers and he accepted a position with the St. Paul District as an honors attorney in March of 2014.
"If you had told me in law school that I would end up at the Corps of Engineers practicing the type of law that we do for a living, I would have been shocked and thought you were crazy," he said. "That said, I think I’m more fulfilled now with the Corps then I probably would have been doing corporate law in a private firm. The passion and joy that I have for what I do with the Corps and helping the greater good probably would have exceeded the passion I would have had for being a corporate lawyer."
Alex felt welcomed into the Corps from the start and thrived with the support he received as the youngest attorney in the office.
"As a new attorney, I was very blessed to have multiple older attorneys who took me under their wing and really trained and developed me," he said. "They showed me the ropes for how to be a successful attorney, which I’ve tried to emulate since being with the Corps. The St. Paul office is very collegial. Most people have their doors open or are otherwise available if you have questions or need someone to bounce an idea off of."
Alex has worked for the St. Paul District his entire tenure with the Corps, but has also had the opportunity to complete temporary assignments with the Seattle District and the Office of the Chief Counsel in Washington D.C.
"The Corps does an incredible job of training its attorneys and providing diverse, developmental experiences that aid in upward job mobility," he said. "Since coming to the Corps, I have had the opportunity to enhance my skillset through a variety of classes and trainings in many diverse places throughout the country. One of the best experiences I had was participating in a division level emerging leadership program. That program allowed me to practice law in the Seattle District for several months. Seattle exposed me to new Corps missions and unique, legal practice areas such as military construction and different aspects of environmental law. I gained valuable friendship with other attorneys in that office that remain with me today."
Alex has found a home with the Corps even though it’s much different than the corporate law he initially sought to practice.
"Looking back, I’d probably tell my younger self to do what you’re passionate about doing and not worry about money or prestige," he said. "Find something that you enjoy doing and do it well. That’s how you’ll be happy in your career. As a teenager, I was motivated by money, prestige and the perception that came along with that. Now that I am older with life experience and kids, I appreciate the importance of having a career that I enjoy and that provides me with the right level of balance and stability."