Attorneys who worked at appointed posts in the Bush administration are hearing from Washington law firms about life after “W.”

There seems abundant opportunity for many outgoing administration attorneys, said Eric Kuwana, deputy chairman of Katten Muchin Rosenman’s national litigation practice from the firm’s Washington office.

He has felt the tidal forces of administration changes since beginning his Washington career in 1991 at the office of counsel to the first President Bush.

Kuwana sees a strong market for attorneys who worked in the agencies immersed in the credit crisis. But the economic crash has firms reluctant to hire Bush staffers who worked in other areas of the government, particularly if a strong Democrat showing in the elections leaves them without contacts in the government.

“Right now, with the financial crisis, anybody who is senior in Treasury and SEC will be hot on the market, but you have a soft economy and the likelihood of a stronger Democratic House and Senate and a Democratic administration,” Kuwana said. “The former deputy undersecretary of whatever that law firms used to go after will now have fewer options.”

Making the transition

Michael Desmond has successfully made the transition twice from government attorney to private practice.

He began his career with a five-year stint in the Attorney General’s Honors Program at the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice that ended when he joined McKee Nelson in New York in 2000. He left McKee in 2005 to serve as tax legislative counsel for the Treasury Department and returned to McKee as head of the tax practice in May 2008.

“[The] Justice [Department] was the best job I could get out of law school,” Desmond said. “Two months on the job and I am sent to California to handle a case on my own, three thousand miles from my boss. Many senior partners have not done jury trials in federal court, and I was doing it my second year.”

Desmond had just made partner at McKee in 2005 when he was irresistibly tempted to return to government.

“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Desmond said. “A lot of attorneys make the mistake of not being in the position to take an 80% pay cut to work in the government. The money should not be relevant. The experience pays dividends for the rest of your life, and not just financially. It is an unparalleled experience to get that inside look at policymaking.”

Joel F. Henning, a senior vice president at Hildebrandt who consults with law firms on management issues, said government attorneys find opportunities proportionate to a firm’s confidence they will soon bring in clients.

“A federal attorney who made a name and is likely to build a white-collar practice will do OK, but we are in a free-falling economy and law firms don’t have money to throw around,” Henning said. “If you are a celebrity but you don’t bring in money, firms might give you an office and half a secretary but not an equity partnership.”

Of the attorneys from the Bush administration who are in demand the clamor is loudest for former Solicitor General Paul Clement, who resigned in June.

“Paul Clement is the Holy Grail of law firm recruiting,” said Evan Tager, a partner in the litigation and appellate practices at Chicago-based Mayer Brown’s Washington office.

Many firms are interested in founding an appellate practice around Clement the way Mayer Brown launched its practice in 1954 when the late Robert Stern, a veteran of 13 years in the Solicitor General’s Office, joined as partner, Tager said. Mayer’s appellate and Supreme Court practice now tallies 55 litigators, including seven who have experience at the Solicitor General’s Office.

In the years since, a number of firms have launched or greatly enhanced their appellate practices by hiring former solicitors general. Theodore B. Olson, who served as solicitor general from 2001 to 2004, joined the Washington office of Los Angeles’ Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

“The buzz in the legal world about Clement is like the buzz in basketball when LeBron James was coming out of high school and turning pro,” Tager said. “It will be interesting to see where the market will go.”

Clement, now teaching at Georgetown University Law Center, declined to comment.

Last month, after 14 years working for Congress and the president, Michael Bopp took a partnership in the Washington office of Gibson Dunn. He was named coordinator of the firm’s financial markets crisis group. He might have been appointed to an analogous job in the government if he’d stuck around as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Bopp speaks fondly of his government service. “It was intoxicating. I liked it too much,” he said. He was near the center of investigations and initiatives as staff director and chief counsel of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. At the OMB, he had budget oversight totaling $150 billion at the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development.