Patrick Fitzgerald of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. HANDOUT.
Patrick Fitzgerald of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. HANDOUT. ()

Patrick Fitzgerald is the kind of guy people want to listen to. He still holds an outsize reputation among top federal prosecutors in Chicago, having served in the role for a record 11 years and successfully prosecuted two Illinois governors.

So it may be no surprise if a former student decided to sit in on one of the classes co-taught by Fitzgerald and fellow Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom commercial litigation partner Michael Scudder Jr. at The University of Chicago. And that’s exactly what Fitzgerald thought was happening a little over a year ago when a federal law clerk walked into his class with a suit on. But it turned out the former student with a few hours to kill had just walked into the wrong classroom.

The ex-student in question was actually looking for a class on cybersecurity taught by William “Bill” Ridgway, a former assistant U.S. attorney under Fitzgerald who also served as deputy chief of the national security and cybercrimes section at the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago.

“He ditched us like a hot potato,” Fitzgerald said. “Went to Bill’s class and he was gone.”

In January, Ridgway became the first AUSA to follow Fitzgerald to Skadden, despite talk of a long line of candidates seeking jobs with their former boss. Fitzgerald, who joined Skadden five years ago on a deal that The American Lawyer put a roughly $3 million per year, recently sat down with Ridgway to discuss their roles at the firm.

Asked about his transition from the U.S. attorney’s office to private practice, Fitzgerald spoke about how he has kept good on his promise to represent defendants he feels comfortable with and why he recruited Ridgway to Skadden. Ridgway discussed his time prosecuting cyber criminals and how the federal government’s role in fighting cybercrime is similar to what lawyers in private practice do.

The American Lawyer: Pat, one thing you said when you first came to Skadden was you wanted to feel comfortable with who you represent. That you may want to stay away from individuals accused of crimes. Is that something you’ve been able to do and still feel strongly about?

Fitzgerald: The plan I had of doing a corporate practice has worked. I think people often might have misread part of what that message was. It wasn’t a moral judgment about not representing individuals. It was more like, if you were in a situation where an individual said, ‘I want to go all the way through to trial,’ and part of that trial was to create a narrative that was different than what actually happened, which is sometimes what you need to do on cross, I wasn’t prepared to do that.

When it gets into a trial context, I’m much more comfortable laying things out as they happened rather than raising doubt about things. Maybe in the context of a trial of an individual where it may be more of a reasonable doubt defense—I’m not wired that way. But in the context of representing folks who say we’re an institution, some people made mistakes, we didn’t all make mistakes, and we have to address it. I don’t have any discomfort going in and making the case on behalf of a client.

TAL: Sounds like your allegiance is to the truth?

Fitzgerald: I just feel more comfortable having a narrative I feel comfortable I can stand behind. And recognize that if I’m going to tell the government the facts are “X,” I want to know that if they push down they’ll see that’s true.

TAL: You had worked with Bill before. How did his hire happen, and what made you excited to have him work with you again?

Fitzgerald: Bill, I knew since 2008 when he joined the [Chicago U.S. attorney’s] office. He has a great background, double Stanford grad. And Judge [Richard] Posner spoke very, very highly of Bill. And when he came into the office, he was very well-liked and well-regarded for being really smart and hard-working. We really weren’t in the market to bring anyone in from outside, and frankly, when people left the U.S. attorney’s office, I’d tell them that.

Look, there are lots of people I’d really like to work with, there’s just no spots at the inn. And when I thought Bill might be leaving it was sort of, one, he was a terrific lawyer and he had this cyber capability that would be really additive to what we have. We have a cyber capability at the firm, but Bill having the recency of having just got out of the government would be a good compliment to what we have elsewhere in the firm. And having that on the ground in Chicago was particularly compelling.

TAL: On the cyber front, it seems like you read about some new form of cybercrime all the time. Like last week I read that somebody hacked a postproduction for Netflix and released a bunch of TV shows. What’s the craziest story you have of what criminals were able to do?

Ridgway: The one I actually ended up enjoying quite a bit was we investigated a group of hacktivists. These are the people who do things for no apparent financial motivation. And we ended up finding and prosecuting the leader of this group called NullCrew. They had done a number of attacks against nonprofits, companies and various government agencies. And it was an interesting prosecution. We had an informant within the group to help infiltrate the group.

TAL: How’d you flip him?

Ridgway: That part was not made public. But we were able to have an informant in the group to help us identify all the leaders. And you’d think if you have an informant you’d be able to get the identity right away. But these actors don’t know each other by their true names, typically. You’d never ask someone their true name. So we were constantly trying to find those little nuggets of information which would show their identity in some secondary manner.

TAL: You’ve been at Skadden since January. What’s it been like compared to working for the government?

Ridgway: When you’re doing cyber work for the government, one of the things you do a lot of is outreach to companies to talk to them about how they can better prepare for cyber incidents and how you can help them when something bad happens. And at least that aspect of presenting capabilities to people, there are some similarities to what we do here when we are telling people about our capabilities when it comes to cyber. Obviously there are a lot of things that are different because this is my first time in private practice, so learning to bill my time and all of that. Otherwise, there are a lot of similarities.

TAL: Pat, it’s been written that one of your best friends is James Comey, the FBI director. He’s had an interesting year.

Fitzgerald: He’s one of my best friends.

TAL: Have you kept in contact with him as he’s been in the headlines?

Fitzgerald: We’ve always been in touch. I’ve known him for almost 30 years. He’s a great friend.

TAL: What about how he’s handled being in the political spotlight.

Fitzgerald: I’m not going to give an interview on that, just because I haven’t gone on the topic there. Don’t take that as anything other than that’s a topic that I’ve declined about probably 60 interviews on. Don’t read anything into that.

All interviews are condensed and edited for style, grammar and clarity.