Kenneth Wainstein at a 2014 press conference detailing accounts of academic fraud in association with the University of North Carolina athletic department.
Kenneth Wainstein at a 2014 press conference detailing accounts of academic fraud in association with the University of North Carolina athletic department. (Photo by Dan Sears/UNC)

Kenneth Wainstein, one of Washington, D.C.’s top white-collar lawyers, is jumping firms.

Wainstein is leaving Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, where he was co-chair of the firm’s litigation department and chair of the white-collar group, for another Wall Street mainstay, Davis Polk & Wardwell.

The move coincides with one of the hottest stretches Washington’s white-collar bar has experienced in years. As federal investigations plague the Trump administration, Wainstein has been among the prominent lawyers circling the action.

He represented James Clapper Jr. when the former director of national intelligence testified in May about Russian interference in the presidential election. He represents John Brennan, the former CIA director, and David Cohen, the CIA’s deputy director until January. Wainstein himself interviewed for the FBI director job after President Donald Trump fired James Comey. (Christopher Wray of King & Spalding ultimately got the nod.)

Davis Polk praised Wainstein’s track record in a statement Tuesday evening, saying he would help the firm continue to strengthen its investigations and enforcement practices.

Reached at his office while he was packing boxes, Wainstein said his move had nothing to do with Cadwalader’s management or with client matters, and that he wasn’t dissatisfied with the firm. Rather, a shift to Davis Polk was “just a tremendous opportunity to work with Neil [MacBride] and friends I had known for a number of years,” he said. He plans to move this week. 

Cadwalader in the past few years has lost several notable partners to firms including Greenberg Traurig; McDermott Will & Emery; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; and Willkie Farr & Gallagher. Davis Polk, on the other hand, has attempted to grow its presence in D.C., especially in white-collar law, with hires including MacBride, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, in 2013.

“Neil and I have talked about this idea for some time,” Wainstein said of his move. He cited other “good friends” he had at Davis Polk, such as Denis McInerney, the former Justice Department fraud section head, and Raul Yanes, who vacated his position as head of Davis Polk’s Washington office in April to become chief compliance officer at Morgan Stanley.

in terms of its partners’ average compensation, Davis Polk is a step up. The lockstep-partnership firm reached profits per partner  of about $3.75 million last year, compared with Cadwalader’s $2.115 million, its first increase in the metric since 2012.

“Ken has been a great partner with a distinguished record of public service. We appreciate his contributions to our firm, and we wish him all the best going forward,” Cadwalader managing partner Patrick Quinn said in a statement Tuesday night. Cadwalader noted that New York partner Jason Halper will become the sole chair of the firm’s litigation group upon Wainstein’s departure, and partner Jodi Avergun in Washington, D.C., will be head of the white-collar defense practice.

Wainstein’s heavy private practice resume includes counseling clients amid scandals and conducting investigations. He represented a former assistant U.S. attorney accused of misconduct in the Ted Stevens case and Washington Wizards basketball player Gilbert Arenas, among other high-profile clients. He also conducted internal investigations for the National Collegiate Athletic Association and for the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which found evidence of academic fraud, especially among student athletes, dating back decades.

His engagement with UNC alone earned Cadwalader $2.7 million in fees in 2014 and 2015.

“Any law firm would be lucky to have him,” said Steve Bunnell of O’Melveny & Myers, a longtime friend and colleague of Wainstein’s. “He’s respected as an apolitical public servant type.”
Wainstein said he is not taking a group of lawyers with him to Davis Polk, and that he foresees keeping his current clients.

Before his time in private practice, Wainstein spent nearly his entire career as a federal prosecutor and in other government positions. He was general counsel at the FBI and chief of staff to then-director Robert Mueller III early in the George W. Bush administration. (Mueller is now leading the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into the Trump campaign and its alleged contacts with Russian officials.)

Wainstein served as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia from 2004 until 2006. He then became head of the National Security Division at the Justice Department and assistant to President George W. Bush on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism matters. After serving in the Bush administration, Wainstein joined O’Melveny & Myers. He moved to Cadwalader in 2012.

During the presidential campaign last year, Wainstein was among several prominent national security experts who signed a letter opposing Donald Trump’s candidacy.

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