Beth Brinkmann, a former deputy assistant U.S. attorney general (Diego M. Radzinschi)
Beth Brinkmann, a deputy assistant attorney general for the past eight years who headed the civil division’s appellate staff at the U.S. Department of Justice, has chosen Covington & Burling for her post-Obama administration landing.
Brinkmann will be co-leader of the appellate practice at Covington, said the firm’s current practice head, Robert Long. Before she joined the Obama administration, Brinkmann was a partner at Morrison & Foerster, where she was mentioned as potentially becoming the nation’s first female solicitor general.
“Covington turned out to be just a really unique opportunity,” Brinkmann said Tuesday about her new firm, which has become a private practice refuge for former Obama-era Justice Department leaders. The firm is “a longstanding presence in the legal community,” she said, praising Covington’s “culture of teamwork.”
Brinkmann, who added that she has previously worked closely with many current Covington lawyers, started at the firm Monday after taking about two months off from work. She declined to discuss how many other firms she considered joining after leaving public service.
Covington’s hire of Brinkmann etches the firm deeper into the foundation of well-known litigation practices in Washington, D.C., after years of lagging behind some of its competitors in appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court. During the high court’s current term, 13 other firms in the nation’s capital besides Covington have nabbed multiple writ of certiorari grants, according to the blog Empirical SCOTUS.
Long, the chair of Covington’s appellate and Supreme Court litigation group, has had some elite moments during his 18 total arguments before the court. The Supreme Court appointed him to argue independent of a client during the historic three-day consideration of the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality in 2012.
Brinkmann worked on a precursor to the case from the federal government’s perspective when she defended the Affordable Care Act before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
“We like the Supreme Court work and would like to do more of it, and we think Beth can help with that,” Long said Tuesday. “A lot of what we do is in the courts of appeals.” He then paraphrased a saying, that the most successful battles are ones that are never fought.
Brinkmann, 58, is a former Supreme Court clerk to the late Associate Justice Harry Blackmun. She has argued 24 cases before the Supreme Court, a count that instantly puts her into the top tier of high court advocates. She is part of an even smaller pool of accomplished female Supreme Court advocates in Washington, D.C.
Some of those appearances were made by Brinkmann during a stint in the U.S. Solicitor General’s office from 1993 to 2001. One has become the stuff of Supreme Court lore.
In 1996, she raised the eyebrows of former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist when she wore a brown skirt—rather than a black one—to an argument. The chief justice complained to the current solicitor general, then Walter Dellinger III, who defended Brinkmann and noted how few women had worked in the solicitor general’s office until that time.
Earlier in her career, Brinkmann was an assistant public defender in Washington, D.C. She said Tuesday that part of her attraction to Covington was the firm’s involvement in litigation that leads to trial work, of which she plans to help clients think strategically.
While some appellate litigators develop areas of specialty—such as technology, health care or intellectual property—Brinkmann noted that she doesn’t see herself focusing on any particular industry. She added that one of the benefits of appellate law is getting to learn many different areas of practice.
Already an old-line presence in the city, Covington has systematically built up its litigation presence inside the Beltway by adding several former members of the Obama administration, including bringing back former partner and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and ex-criminal division chief Lanny Breuer, who since 2013 has served as Covington’s vice chair. (Lawmakers in California have already engaged the firm, including Holder, to litigate against the Trump administration.)
Generally, the private practice appellate bar in Washington, D.C., has felt a city-wide shakeup in recent months as firms have eyed expanding services to clients. In September, Munger, Tolles & Olson announced plans for its first non-California office in Washington, D.C., after hiring Donald Verrilli Jr., a former solicitor general in the Obama administration.
Jenner & Block, Verrilli’s former firm, announced Monday that three new partners would lead its Supreme Court group, following the departure of practice head Paul Smith, who left the firm a month ago to teach and handle voting rights litigation.
Morrison & Foerster filled the appellate void created by Brinkmann’s departure eight years ago by hiring Deanne Maynard in June 2009 to lead the firm’s appellate and Supreme Court practice. Maynard, a former Jenner & Block partner who served as assistant to the solicitor general, now co-chairs Morrison & Foerster’s appellate group with Joseph Palmore, another former assistant to the solicitor general hired by the firm in 2014.
Brinkmann’s announcement this time falls on the same day that President Donald Trump plans to announce his nominee to replace former Associate Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court and less than 24 hours after he fired acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates over her refusal to enforce the Trump administration’s travel ban on migrants and refugees.
Brinkmann declined to comment on those developments.
“It certainly is an interesting period,” she said.
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