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Most litigators celebrate a big win by dropping a fortune on steaks at Morton’s. Whenever Washington, D.C.-based Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal won a case, they unfurled a white and red flag off the front of their McPherson Square office building. The flag’s proud emblem: “Vincere aut Mori” — Victory or Death. The operatic gesture suited the boutique firm, founded only five years ago by two former Justice Department officials in the Reagan administration who built a lucrative and politically charged practice around some big-ticket commercial litigation and constitutional cases that propelled a conservative agenda. But the drama ended when Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal disbanded April 20. In the span of a few weeks, three of the firm’s top associates had been hired away by President George W. Bush — a tribute, for sure, but also a major loss for a 16-lawyer firm. Then Andrew McBride, a nonequity partner with a telecommunications practice, left for Wiley, Rein & Fielding. Finally, after more than two months of tense discussions, partners Michael Carvin, who had garnered national publicity by arguing on Bush’s behalf before the Florida Supreme Court last fall, and Steven Rosenthal, a highly regarded commercial litigator, packed their boxes and left. On the brink of signing with Kaye Scholer, Rosenthal opted to join the D.C. office of Holland & Knight on April 20. He took four Cooper Carvin lawyers with him. The 44-year-old Carvin joined the D.C. office of sprawling Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue the same day. So Charles Cooper, 49, is the de facto managing partner of a firm that has dwindled to seven full-time attorneys. On April 20, he sounded haggard when he spoke haltingly of the departures. But last week, his gray hair was as rigorously parted, his white collar as tightly buttoned, his gold coat-of-arms cufflinks as polished as ever. “I love my practice,” Cooper says in his throaty, oddly Clintonesque drawl. Cooper and his new name partner, Michael Kirk, are busy with a litany of active cases, he says, and new associates will be found. “I believe the best service I can provide is to continue doing what I’ve been doing,” Cooper adds. “And that is suing the government.” The firm is dead. Long live the firm. FIRST STARR The Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal story began 20 years ago, when Kenneth Starr picked Cooper’s r�sum� out of a pile. Cooper, a University of Alabama Law School grad, jumped from a circuit court clerkship to a Supreme Court clerkship with then-Justice William Rehnquist. Unhappy as a commercial litigator in the Atlanta firm that he joined after leaving the Court’s employ, Cooper yearned to return to the Washington policy arena and aspired to follow in Rehnquist’s footsteps by winning a post at the Justice Department. When Reagan was elected president, Cooper mailed in his r�sum�. Starr, then a counselor to Attorney General William French Smith, hired Cooper in 1981 as an assistant to William Bradford Reynolds, the head of the Civil Rights Division and one of the most controversial, and zealously conservative, figures in Reagan’s Justice Department. One year later, after Cooper had been promoted to deputy, he interviewed Carvin, freshly graduated from law school at George Washington University. “We were simpatico,” Cooper says. Carvin’s political sensibility matched that of Cooper and his boss, Reynolds. Carvin was hired as a special assistant, working directly for Cooper. The two men continued to work together from that moment in 1982 until about two weeks ago. After Cooper assumed the top job in Reagan’s Office of Legal Counsel — following the departure of Theodore Olson, currently awaiting a Senate confirmation vote for solicitor general — Carvin became Cooper’s deputy. After the two men left the ideological crucible of Justice, they eventually joined Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge together. Cooper became the head of the firm’s constitutional and government litigation group. Later Cooper persuaded Carvin, as well as a handful of other Shaw Pittman lawyers, to join him in launching their own firm. Cooper & Carvin opened for business in 1996. That year, Cooper had argued United States v. Winstar Corp. before the Supreme Court. Cooper’s victory in that case, in which the Court agreed that the government was liable to various banks for losses relating to the savings and loan bailout of the 1980s, meant that Cooper & Carvin immediately secured several bank clients with potentially lucrative Winstar claims. The pro-property rights theory of the case was also exciting to their ideological fellow travelers in the Federalist Society and elsewhere. According to Cooper, it was the Winstar cases that brought him and Steven Rosenthal together. Each served on the four-lawyer plaintiffs steering committee that kept tabs on the 120 Winstar cases. Rosenthal did not return calls seeking comment for this article. A longtime litigator in the D.C. office of San Francisco’s Morrison & Foerster, Rosenthal by 1997 had two Winstar cases, and was retained as co-counsel, with Cooper, by a third Winstar client, Coast Federal Bank. Shortly thereafter, in 1998, Rosenthal and four of his colleagues from Morrison & Foerster joined Cooper & Carvin. Rosenthal brought along his Winstar clients. That year, the government paid a total of roughly $100 million to settle with two of Cooper Carvin’s Winstar clients. And since 1997, Coast Federal Bank’s successor has paid almost $5 million in fees to the firm, according to public records. Cooper and Carvin declined to comment on the specifics of firm finances. But by all accounts, the firm enjoyed high profits. Two well-connected Washington lawyers indicated that the three equity partners each drew well over $1 million in profits annually. The firm had also succeeded in recruiting lawyers that cemented an elite reputation. From 1997 to 2000, Cooper Carvin hired four former Supreme Court clerks. R. Ted Cruz, now an associate deputy attorney general, joined the firm in 1997 after clerking for Chief Justice Rehnquist and J. Michael Luttig on the 4th Circuit. Cooper Carvin “did a ton of Supreme Court cases and cutting-edge constitutional cases,” Cruz recalls. “There were a lot of sparks and intellectual excitement — you weren’t joining a place with people who were punching a time clock. It was a band of brothers, so to speak.” The firm worked on more than a dozen Supreme Court cases and dozens of other federal appeals, in addition to several trials. By 2000, Cooper Carvin had secured a reputation as one of the pre-eminent Supreme Court litigation operations in Washington — and an unapologetically conservative one. The only comparable enterprise, Cooper suggests, was Ted Olson’s group at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. ENDGAME What broke the firm apart? Based on interviews with Cooper, Carvin, and several other lawyers familiar with the firm, a number of factors led Carvin and Rosenthal to bail out. Rosenthal was — and remained — primarily a commercial litigator. He did argue a judicial pay case at the Supreme Court earlier this year, but according to others, including Cooper and Carvin, Rosenthal’s work was less politically driven than his partners’. The firm’s depleted ranks may have been problematic for a lawyer hoping to build a multijurisdictional complex litigation practice. Rosenthal and his cadre of four former Morrison & Foerster colleagues “have done a great job without a lot of backup and support,” says Paul Kiernan, who heads up Holland & Knight’s D.C. litigation group. A giant Holland & Knight offers a platform that could alleviate that problem. Meanwhile, Carvin has seen his star rise in conservative and Republican circles. He has argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including a widely publicized census case in 1998. He has since been retained in several state redistricting cases. “Sometimes your profile changes,” Carvin says. Being asked to represent George W. Bush’s campaign before the Florida Supreme Court, Carvin suggests, was “the culmination” of that reputational change. He says campaign lawyers Ted Cruz and Patton Boggs partner Benjamin Ginsberg tracked him down on the road in Seattle to offer him the job. “We went after Carvin as Carvin,” Ginsberg confirms. “Michael has certainly developed his own high profile.” Ginsberg and Cruz note that they also sought and received support from Cooper. While pundits savaged Carvin’s performance before the Florida Supreme Court, he nevertheless became nationally known as a top Republican advocate. And Jones Day was looking for a top-notch appellate lawyer after losing Timothy Dyk to a seat on the Federal Circuit last year. The firm offered Carvin the resources he says he can use for his multistate practice. With Carvin and Rosenthal moving on, Cooper says he has plenty to do. Widely seen as Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal’s top business-getter, Cooper carries on with the vast majority of the firm’s Winstar cases. He is representing the recording industry in its litigation against Napster. And he’s defending Eli Lilly & Co. in a major patent case involving Prozac. To some extent, Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal fell victim to its own political success. The ideologically driven law firm born of the Reagan era came undone during an administration it helped put in office. Two of its name partners landed at big corporate firms looking for experienced counselors, and its associates went into government for the kinds of jobs that launched the careers of its founders. Vincere aut Mori.

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