From the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to the Treasury Department, the Central Intelligence Agency to the Federal Communications Commission, lawyers in top positions across the federal government have something in common—they’re from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.
More than any other law firm, Wilmer has populated the Obama administration with high-profile alums. At least 20 partners have left the firm since 2009 for senior government posts. A handful have come back, but 17 others, including U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald Machen Jr., Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, Internal Revenue Service chief counsel William Wilkins and SEC Division of Corporation Finance head Meredith Cross, are still on the job.
It’s the classic Washington cycle writ large. First, there’s an exodus of talent at the start of a new presidential administration. Now, as another election looms, a potential influx. In Wilmer’s case, the process has been super-sized, magnifying both the drawbacks and advantages of the revolving door.
What is it about Wilmer that leads so many of its partners to land highly coveted, politically appointed jobs? To be sure, any self-respecting Washington firm can boast of a few former lawyers in high places—Covington & Burling, for example, was previously home to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.
During the past four years, Wilmer’s footprint has grown comparatively bigger. At Covington, approximately seven partners have left to take jobs in the Obama administration. At another D.C. stalwart, Arnold & Porter, only three partners have done so (a fourth, William Baer, is awaiting confirmation as head of DOJ’s Antitrust Division).
To Wilmer co-managing partner Robert Novick, the mass of ex-partners now in government is a reflection of the 1,000-lawyer firm’s emphasis on public service, a tradition he dates back to name partner Lloyd Cutler’s role as White House counsel during the Carter and Clinton administrations. “It’s a part of our business and who we are as an institution. It’s one reason why people chose to come to WilmerHale,” said Novick, a former general counsel of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. “When our lawyers are tapped to serve in government, it’s a reflection of the quality of our brand.”
Novick stressed that the firm is “not at all partisan.” Still, Democratic connections clearly played a role in helping some firm lawyers get jobs in the Obama administration.
Partner Jamie Gorelick, who served as both general counsel of the Department of Defense and deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, is well-connected in Democratic circles. Gorelick in 2009 said she “strongly recommended” fellow Wilmer partner Stephen Preston, who had been one of her deputies at Defense and DOJ, to Leon Panetta for the job of CIA general counsel. Preston was confirmed in 2009 and continues to serve as the spy agency’s top lawyer.
Gorelick also recommended Wilmer partner David Ogden, whom she had known since he was a summer associate, for the job of deputy attorney general. He was confirmed in 2009 and returned to Wilmer in 2010.
“We do help each other—and that goes for Republicans and Democrats,” Gorelick said in an interview last week, noting that she assisted firm counsel Elisebeth Collins Cook, a Republican who was confirmed by the Senate in August to serve on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. “It’s just wonderful to see really talented people land in places where their talents can be put to work,” she said.
Deep securities bench
Of all federal agencies, Wilmer’s presence is felt most strongly at the SEC. Since the start of the Obama administration, six partners have left to join the agency in top roles—Commissioner Daniel Gallagher, general counsel Mark Cahn, deputy general counsel Anne Small, Enforcement Division chief counsel Joseph Brenner, Division of Corporation Finance head Meredith Cross, and David Medine, an attorney fellow.
On the other side, Wilmer in an online publication lists 11 current partners and four counsel or special counsel who previously worked at the SEC. Foremost among them is securities department chairman William McLucas, who headed the SEC’s Enforcement Division for a record eight years. Such a critical mass means any Wilmer lawyer interested in an SEC job already has contacts within the agency and experienced colleagues who can offer advice and recommendations.
The ties between Wilmer and the SEC have attracted disapproving attention from the Project On Government Oversight. POGO investigator Michael Smallberg in a 2011 article noted that the firm has represented major Wall Street banks and called the connection “the latest example of the [SEC's] coziness to the industry it oversees.”
Novick responded that, although the number of firm lawyers moving in and out of the SEC may seem high to an outsider, the scale of Wilmer’s securities practice dwarfs the lateral moves. Wilmer has about 200 lawyers in its firmwide securities practice, and the SEC employs about 1,500 lawyers. “It’s no more than a reflection of such a strong practice and a strong demand for our services,” Novick said.
Given Wilmer’s deep securities bench, the firm can adjust to the departure of a handful of partners, even prominent ones like Cross, who served as chairman or co-chairman of the corporate practice group for more than seven years.
“You lose someone, you miss them, they were part of a team,” Novick said. “But on a macro level, it’s more a cause for celebration for a person who got a great opportunity.”
When it comes to smaller practices, there may be less to celebrate. For example, by one measure, Wilmer’s tax practice in Washington took a hit when Wilkins departed in 2009 for the IRS. That year, Wilmer’s tax practice was ranked as one of the best in Washington by Chambers USA, as was Wilkins as a tax practitioner. But the following year, with Wilkins gone, the D.C. tax practice no longer made the list.
“Any departure can affect some portion of business or [client] relationships,” Novick said. “But we have a very robust tax practice in Boston and New York and Washington. Bill’s departure had no appreciable impact on our ability to provide tax services.”
Wilkins, who did not respond to a request for comment, is considered by headhunters to be one of the hottest potential hires coming out of government, given his tax expertise and insider knowledge of the IRS’ new role in enforcing the Affordable Care Act.
The other ex-partners in government are FCC Media Bureau Chief William Lake; Christopher Meade, the acting general counsel of Treasury; David Cohen, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at Treasury; Tonya Robinson, special assistant to the president for justice and regulatory affairs; Henry Wixon, chief counsel to the National Institute of Standards and Technology; Christopher Lipsett, senior counsel at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and Todd Stern, special envoy for climate change at the State Department.
Whether any or all will return to Wilmer is unknown, but the firm historically has had a very high success rate in getting its former partners back. Given that none will return with clients or work, is the prospect of reabsorbing 17 (presumably well-compensated) partners over a short period of time a concern?
No, said Novick, pointing out that the firm is big enough handle the initial cost—and strategic enough to recognize the long-term investment. “If everyone showed up in the lobby on the day after the election, we’d be able to accommodate them.”
Jenna Greene writes for The National Law Journal, a Daily Report affiliate.