Lawyers who have served as the White House counsel have often been giants of Washington’s legal establishment. Think names like Lloyd Cutler, C. Boyden Gray or Abner Mikva.

And as the next counsel to President Barack Obama, 40-year-old Kathryn Ruemmler may be a giant in the making — if she can survive the politically grueling tests she’s sure to face.

Ruemmler is set to take over the job after rocketing through the U.S. Justice Department, private practice and Democratic legal circles in little more than a decade. She’ll be among the youngest ever to hold the job, and those who’ve watched her climb say she’s impressed nearly everyone along the way. “She’s almost in the mold of the Cutlers of the world, who have done a little bit of everything,” said Beth Wilkinson, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and a Ruemmler friend. Cutler, who died in 2005, counseled Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in addition to a high-profile career in private practice, including his years as a name partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.

Jamie Gorelick, a deputy attorney general under Clinton, said Ruemmler’s experience and the judgment she’s shown in her career outweigh her relative youth. “She holds her own with people of all ages,” said Gorelick, a partner at Wilmer. “She’s demonstrated her ability to take important leadership roles.”

Ruemmler will succeed Robert Bauer, who after 18 months is rejoining the political law practice at Perkins Coie to advise Obama’s re-election campaign.

After serving as Bauer’s principal deputy, Ruemmler is entering the top post at a time of relative quiet. The White House isn’t facing a major criminal investigation she needs to respond to, and there’s no immediate sign of a Supreme Court vacancy, which would consume her staff. The biggest questions for her are likely to be over executive orders, the handling of terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and investigations by House Republicans. She’ll also ultimately be in charge of the judicial nominations process.

Her career path is punctuated with moves in and out of government. She was a Zuckerman Spaeder associate in Washington before finding her way into the Clinton White House as an associate counsel. She then spent a few months of 2001 as an associate at Latham & Watkins, where she worked with Wilkinson, before moving to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

As a young prosecutor, she caught the eye of superiors who chose her to join the Justice Department’s Enron Task Force as that team was facing turnover. “She was incredibly mature beyond her years, personally and professionally. You would not have known she was as young as she was,” said Leslie Caldwell, who hired Ruemmler and is now a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, as Ruemmler interviewed witnesses, worked in front of a grand jury and participated in trials for one of the biggest white-collar criminal cases in U.S. history. In 2006, she delivered the government’s closing argument in the trial of former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, both of whom were convicted. Her reward: a return to Latham in 2007, this time as a partner.

“Government gives people that opportunity sometimes: to acquire extraordinary managerial opportunities and experience early on,” said David Ogden, who was Obama’s first deputy attorney general. Ogden, now a Wilmer partner, said the Enron experience put Ruemmler near the top of the list for potential Obama appointees in the Justice Department. And in 2009 she left Latham to become Ogden’s principal associate, a job that gave her oversight of criminal prosecutions nationwide. “She was talked about for a lot of senior jobs,” he said.

Her fans aren’t all Democrats. Alice Fisher, who served as an assistant attorney general under George W. Bush, said Ruemmler’s experience as a prosecutor weighs against the inherently political nature of the counsel’s job. “My experience with Kathy is that she is all about the merits,” said Fisher, the managing partner of Latham & Watkins’ D.C. office.

As Bauer’s deputy, Ruemmler has handled a variety of matters. In late 2010, after Republicans won control of the House, she took on the “spear-catcher” role of planning how to respond to an anticipated uptick in congressional oversight. So far, the administration and lawmakers have avoided the kinds of confrontations that became distractions for the Bush and Clinton administrations.

Duke Law School professor Samuel Buell, another former member of the Enron Task Force, calls Ruemmler “a very savvy legal strategist” who’s also been networking in Washington legal circles for years. “It doesn’t surprise me that people in the White House would look around and say, ‘You should be the White House counsel. Why go out and get a big name when we have someone right here?’ ” Buell said.

David Ingram can be contacted at