Shearman & Sterling’s marketing department deposited nary a word on the firm’s website when the Trump administration announced last month that Robert Evans, a firm partner at the time, would become deputy of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s division of corporate finance.
Previously, when the Trump White House tapped William Hinman, a retired Simpson Thacher & Bartlett partner, to serve as the director of the SEC’s corporate finance division, that firm, too, kept quiet.
Similarly, earlier this spring, when Jay Clayton, then a Sullivan & Cromwell partner, left to become the SEC’s chairman and tapped his former partner, Steven Peikin, to be co-director of the agency’s enforcement division, their firm’s marketing team stayed mum.
The reticence was noteworthy. But when firms remain silent about their exiting partners assuming such plum and influential SEC roles, is that a sign of ambivalence about the Trump administration?
Unlikely, according to some law firm marketing consultants, who also noted that the firms don’t have to roar about something that most of their clients and prospects most likely already know.
“The firms don’t have to do anything—or much of anything,” said Brad Hildebrandt of Hildebrandt Consulting.
“Everybody who is remotely sophisticated knows people would kill for those positions,” said Bruce MacEwen, a consultant at Adam Smith Esquire in New York.
The firms also most likely wanted to avoid risking even the appearance of crossing ethical lines. And they probably did not want to seem too eager to exploit their former partners’ new regulatory roles, the consultants said.
“They’ve always been mute when their partners go to these places, but they do handsprings when they come out,” said Janet Stanton, MacEwen’s colleague at Adam Smith.
Indeed, firms often engage in much ballyhoo when partners return from the SEC, as Debevoise & Plimpton did when Mary Jo White returned to the firm last January after serving four years as the SEC chair during the Obama administration.
“Ms. White’s practice will focus on counseling boards of directors and representing clients on significant and sensitive matters, including companies facing crises involving multi-faceted government investigations and cases,” the firm said in a statement at the time.
Three months later in April, Debevoise announced the launch of a “Strategic Crisis Response and Solutions Group” led by White, who the firm said would “leverage” its expertise to engage in “swift deployment to help clients avert legal and reputational harm, while addressing the precipitating causes of the crisis.”
But the level of discretion that firms are now demonstrating when their partners move to the SEC is higher than in the past, according to Tom Clay, a consultant with Altman Weil. “This to me is a little bit different,” he said.
Either way, the historical advantage gained by firms with partners going to the SEC remains: credibility and contacts.
“These folks make a lot of great contacts,” Clay said, noting that those contacts are likely to pay off if the lawyers return to their firms—a likely scenario. “No matter who is in office, the bureaucracy still exists and it will be all about, ‘Can you get something done?’”
Yet, emphasizing the strong connection to a government agency during the Trump era seems risky, according to Clay, “I think because firms are being called out by clients for representing Trump or Trump associates, well nobody wants bad publicity,” Clay said.
Miriam Rozen covers the business of law with a focus on law firm-client relationships. Contact her at email@example.com. Twitter: @MiriamRozen.