Lawyers have been cycling between government and private practice since the country’s founding. But with the prospect of divided government in Washington helping prompt some lawyers in the federal government to eye the exits, such moves may be picking up speed.
Below are a handful of this year’s shift changes that had a particularly notable impact on law and government in D.C. and beyond—and that may lead to another spin in or out of government in 2019.
Jon Kyl, who ping-ponged again this year between the U.S. Senate and Covington & Burling, has already helped to shape two branches of the U.S. government under the Trump administration.
Upon retiring from the U.S. Senate as the second-highest-ranking Republican in 2013, Kyl joined Covington as senior of counsel. Since the election of President Donald Trump, his expertise and relationships led to roles shepherding former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh through bruising confirmation processes in consecutive years.
When Arizona Sen. John McCain died this fall, Kyl accepted an appointment to fill McCain’s seat from the Grand Canyon State’s governor and cast a consequential vote to confirm Kavanaugh. On Tuesday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said U.S. Rep. Martha McSally would succeed Kyl when the senator exits again at the end of the year. McSally is poised to serve alongside Democratic Sen.-elect Krysten Sinema, whom McSally lost to in November.
Whether Kyl is headed back to Covington remains to be seen.
Sally Yates took almost 30-years to make her first full revolution through the revolving door, but her exit from government was particularly dramatic.
Yates returned to King & Spalding in D.C. and Atlanta as partner in May, following decades of work as a prosecutor and as deputy attorney general in President Barack Obama’s administration. Yates is a partner in the firm’s special matters & government investigations practice, in which the firm has invested heavily in recent years.
Yates’ 10-day tenure in 2017 as acting U.S. attorney general in Trump’s administration, which ended with her firing after not defending Trump’s travel ban, made headlines and earned her plaudits as “The Face of Institutional Resistance.” Yates has also appeared as a “resistance” hero as a headliner of the American Constitution Society’s annual convention in Washington and has emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the campaign trail.
Attorney General Shuffle
Late 2018 brought an even bigger leadership shuffle at Main Justice, with the departure of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the appointment of Matt Whitaker to act as Sessions’ successor, and the decision to nominate William Barr to fill the slot in the long-term—or at least for the foreseeable future.
Trump shoved Sessions out the door one day after the 2018 midterm elections and selected his chief of staff, Whitaker, to fill his shoes. Whitaker is not a career DOJ official but a former candidate for the U.S. Senate from Iowa, CNN political commentator and attorney in private practice at Whitaker Hagenow & Gustoff.
Following Whitaker’s selection as the acting AG, Trump nominated former U.S. Attorney General William Barr to return to Main Justice from Kirkland & Ellis, where he was of counsel. Barr previously led the Justice Department under the late President George H. W. Bush.
Whether Whitaker, Barr, or someone else is running the Justice Department at this time next year could have a profound impact on criminal justice reform, immigration, regulatory enforcement and countless individual cases—including the legal challenge to Whitaker’s own appointment.
White House Counsel Musical Chairs
Only two people—so far—have served as U.S. attorney general in 2018, but three have already led the White House Counsel’s office.
Don McGahn, a former Jones Day partner, left the White House Counsel’s office following Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation in October. McGahn’s future plans not yet fully known, and he has largely shied away from public commentary since his departure, with the exception of remarks he made at the Federalist Society’s 2018 National Lawyers Convention in Washington.
McGahn was temporarily replaced by Emmet Flood, a Williams & Connolly partner who left the firm and joined Trump’s legal team in May. Flood acted as White House counsel until the late-2018 arrival of Pat Cipollone, former name partner at Stein Mitchell Cipollone Beato & Missner and a former partner at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C.
With Democrats in control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019, the White House Counsel’s office looks likely to be on the defensive in the New Year. The president has pledged to take a “warlike posture” if Democrats investigate him in the coming year.
Former Texas solicitor general Scott Keller joined Baker Botts in September, taking the headquarters of the Houston-based Am Law 100 firm’s U.S. Supreme Court and constitutional law practice to D.C. with him.
Keller is hardly a stranger in D.C. or at 1 First Street, where he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. As Texas AG, he argued 11 times before the high court on behalf of the Lone Star State during the Obama administration. Earlier in his career, Keller also worked as a Bristow Fellow at the Justice Department, as chief counsel for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and as associate at Yetter Coleman.
Keller said this week that Baker Botts is working to “ramp up” its appellate practice, adding that expanding the U.S. Supreme Court and constitutional law practice was one of the reasons the firm brought him aboard.