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The Wilmer Connection
From the Securities and Exchange Commission to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Central Intelligence Agency to the Federal Communications Commission, many lawyers in top positions in the federal government have something in commonthey'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 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 presidential administration, and after another election, a new influx. But in Wilmer's case, the process has been supersized, 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 D.C. firm can boast of a few former lawyers in high placesCovington & Burling, for example, was previously home to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.
But over the past four years, Wilmer's footprint has grown larger. At Covington, about seven partners have taken jobs in the Obama administration. At another D.C. stalwart, Arnold & Porter, just three partners have done so (a fourth, William Baer, is awaiting confirmation as head of the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust division).
To Wilmer comanaging partner Robert Novick, it's 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 Wilmer," says 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 stresses 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 U.S. Department of Defense and deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, is well connected in Democratic circles. Gorelick says she "strongly recommended" her partner Stephen Preston, who had been one of her deputies at Defense and Justice, for the general counsel job at the CIA. Preston was confirmed in 2009 and continues to serve as the spy agency's top lawyer.
Gorelick also recommended 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 otherand that goes for Republicans and Democrats," Gorelick says, noting that she assisted firm counsel Elisebeth Collins Cook, a Republican who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate 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 adds.
Of all federal agencies, Wilmer's presence is felt most strongly at the SEC. Six partners have snagged top rolesCommissioner Daniel Gallagher, GC 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 lists 11 current partners and four counsel or special counsel who were previously 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 that any Wilmer lawyer interested in an SEC job already has contacts and experienced colleagues who can offer advice and recommendations.
Not everyone approves. The ties between Wilmer and the SEC provoked criticism from the nonprofit watchdog 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 responds 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 asserts.
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 cochairman of the corporate practice group for more than seven years. "You lose someone, you miss them, they were part of a team," Novick says. "But on a macro level, it's more a cause for celebration for a person who got a great opportunity."
Matthew Huisman contributed reporting.
A version of this story appeared in The National Law Journal, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.