Even Harvard Law School can’t teach someone to have good instincts, which are probably what saved Bert Rein’s career in 1972. Then a political appointee in the Nixon administration’s State Department and a veteran of Nixon’s 1968 campaign, Rein had been summoned to the headquarters of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President to discuss his role in the campaign — a likely stepping-stone to the directorship of a federal agency if Nixon won.

“I happened to be there when Howard Hunt was roaming the halls,” he said, and after meeting the former CIA agent who would gain notoriety as one of Nixon’s “plumbers” during the Watergate scandal, “I thought, ‘Do you really want to be here?’ There was something about it. I thought, ‘This is not a good place to be.’ At the time I thought, ‘I’m giving up a hell of a lot.’ Now, looking back, it was the best decision I ever made. It probably kept me out of jail.”

Instead, Rein, now 71, went to work for a decade at Kirkland & Ellis before he and long-time partner Richard Wiley left in 1983 to start the firm that bears their names. Along the way he’s built a career as a classic Washington lawyer with a finger in antitrust, food and drug regulation, communications law, commercial litigation and Republican politics. Rein has represented whistleblowers in fraud suits against government contractors; spent four decades advising satellite communications giant Intelsat as it’s morphed from an intergovernmental agency to a private company to a soon to be publicly traded corporation; and helped shepherd the International Air Transport Association through the thicket of competition rules governing the airline industry.

Meanwhile, Wiley Rein has evolved from startup into a pillar of the Washington legal establishment. Rein isn’t done yet. This fall he’ll argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that the University of Texas’ use of race in admissions is unconstitutional — a case that could spell the end of affirmative action. A win would be a nice capstone for Rein in a diverse Washington legal career that is increasingly rare.

“Law firms’ clients are looking at them increasingly as vendors,” Rein said. “The kind of role as close adviser is not compatible with today’s world.”