Kathryn Ruemmler, former White House counsel, now at Latham & Watkins
Kathryn Ruemmler, former White House counsel, now at Latham & Watkins (Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

Former White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler is returning to Latham & Watkins, where she will help companies navigate Washington’s regulatory and enforcement landscape.

“There’s really no place like the White House to see and have a rich understanding of how policy gets made,” Ruemmler, who served as President Barack Obama’s top lawyer for the past three years, said in an interview last week.

Ruemmler said she talked to a few “really outstanding firms, and they made the decision difficult for me.” She did not name the firms.

At the White House, Ruemmler provided legal advice on foreign and domestic policy, national security matters and executive branch dealings with Congress on investigations and judicial nominations.

Senate Republicans, Ruemmler said in the interview, miscalculated amid the showdown last fall over Obama’s three nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Ruemmler said she crafted the White House strategy to simultaneously announce three picks for the D.C. Circuit. She said she arranged the nominees — putting Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s Patricia Millett first — to make Republicans block her without the ability to raise a substantive objection. Millett’s credentials to serve on the appeals court were never questioned.

“I believed that if the Republicans did not allow Patricia Millett to get an up or down vote, the Democrats would decide they really didn’t have an option because the Republicans were going to ensure that the president had no additional judges on that court,” Ruemmler said.

The alternative scenario, Ruemmler said, was this: Republicans would let Millett get confirmed and then try to block the other two nominees on the argument that the court’s workload did not justify filling the last two seats on the 11-judge court.

“I think had they let her go through, one never knows for sure, but I think it would have been more challenging for [Majority Leader Harry Reid] to get the votes he needed to deploy the nuclear option,” Ruemmler said.

The announcement of Ruemmler’s move to Latham, where she formerly was a partner, came days after she left the White House. Ruemmler spent two years as a partner at the firm before joining the Obama administration in 2009. She has a long-standing relationship with the firm.

Ruemmler will be a partner in the firm’s litigation department and a member of the white-collar defense and investigations practice group. She will start in July in the firm’s Washington office, but she plans to expand her practice to New York.

Ruemmler anticipated she will spend a lot of time on the train as she pushes to bring together the two offices. “The New York practice in the white-collar enforcement space tends to be focused, not entirely, but in some significant part, on the financial sector,” Ruemmler said. “But all of those financial institutions are also regulated by entities in Washington.”

Ruemmler, deputy director of the Enron Task Force in 2005, said she looks forward to returning to the courtroom. She said she enjoys working on what she described as “multidimensional problems” — where a client faces legal issues on a number of fronts, including congressional investigations, reputational issues and government enforcement.

“Virtually every problem that I worked on as the White House counsel was a problem or a challenge of that nature,” she said. “There are no challenges that are sort of just a pure legal question, so I’m really looking forward to looking at those matters in private practice.”

Latham’s leaders said clients will benefit from the depth of Ruemmler’s legal experience and from her skills in the policy, regulatory and enforcement areas. “Kathy is a fantastic lawyer who has great instinct and judgment,” said Alice Fisher, managing partner of Latham’s Washington office. “She is battle-tested at the highest levels.”

Ruemmler first joined the administration in 2009 as principal associate deputy attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice. She later joined the White House as a deputy counsel. Obama elevated her to White House counsel in June 2011. She twice extended her service in the White House at Obama’s request.

She said her most challenging issue — that she can speak about publicly — was advising Obama on deciding whether to authorize a military strike against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

“We as the lawyers really struggled to advise the national security policymakers about what their options were under domestic law and international law,” Ruemmler said. In the end, the U.S. did not strike Syria.

Ruemmler advised Obama on the debt-ceiling crisis and his decision to instruct the Justice Department to no longer defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act. She waded through the novel legal question of Obama’s decision to make recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board at a time when the Senate was holding pro-forma sessions. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected by this summer to decide the legality of those recess appointments.

“President Obama is extremely even-tempered and calm and deliberate,” Ruemmler said. “One of the most incredible things about the job is he’s such a skilled lawyer and taught constitutional law, and many of the issues, in fact most of the issues, we confronted on the legal side were questions of constitutional law.”

Kirkland & Ellis partner W. Neil Eggleston succeeds Ruemmler as White House counsel. Ruemmler described Eggleston as a “low-ego, high-confidence” lawyer.

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com.