Vernon Jordan (Photo by Benjamin Lozovsky/BFAnyc.com)
“I’ve had a lot of great jobs,” says Vernon Jordan, in a slight understatement. They range from civil rights lawyer to corporate board member to senior partner at Akin Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld—not to mention Jordan’s less official role as confidante to former President Bill Clinton—but Jordan, 79, is perhaps best known as one of Washington, D.C.’s preeminent power brokers.
Jordan, who grew up in an Atlanta public housing project, attended law school at Howard University, then took a clerkship with Atlanta civic rights icon Donald Hollowell, who had sued the University of Georgia for refusing to admit African-American students. When the case was finally won, in 1961, Jordan escorted the school’s first two black students—Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes—to the admission office through a jeering white mob. “I was saying to myself, ‘This is why I went to law school,’” recalls Jordan.
Over the next decade he took a series of jobs in the civil rights movement, including heading the Voter Education Project for the Southern Regional Council. In the early 1970s he signed on as president and CEO of the National Urban League. There his chief mission was combating inner-city poverty, and Jordan began making the rounds in the business community to try to raise money for job training, early education and other initiatives. Xerox Corporation, American Express Company, J.C. Penney Company and other companies began wooing him for their boards. (Jordan ultimately served on nearly 20 different corporate boards.) In 1981, during his tenure on Xerox’s board, his fellow director Robert Strauss, a name partner of Akin Gump, persuaded him to join the firm’s Washington office.
Jordan, who once described himself as a “corporate international generalist,” offers few specifics about his clients or practice, saying only that he offers advice on matters ranging from affirmative action to regulatory and legislative issues. “Vernon knows how to solve problems, and that’s what the Washington practice of law is,” Strauss told Washington Monthly in a 1997 interview. “Vernon doesn’t write briefs, draw up wills or handle divorce cases. He’s a problem solver for major corporate and government problems that arise around the world.”
His reputation only grew after his longtime friend Clinton won the presidency in 1992. Jordan headed the president-elect’s transition team and served as informal adviser through the ups and downs of Clinton’s two terms, including the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when Jordan came under fire for his job placement efforts on behalf of the former White House intern.
Thanks to his many political and business contacts, Jordan remains one of Akin Gump’s most effective rainmakers. “He’s a true legend,” says Kim Koopersmith, the firm’s managing partner. It helps that Jordan has long had big-name pals on both sides of the aisle. “He and I are both strong believers in bipartisanship,” says another friend, James Baker, former secretary of State and Treasury secretary during the George H.W. Bush administration. “I’m one who believes in getting things done, and Vernon believes in that too.”