If John Ensign had his way, he would have waited out his term in the U.S. Senate and retired in 2013. The Senate Ethics Committee wasn’t convinced that was the best idea, given the embarrassing national scandal that enveloped Ensign (R-Nev.) in a tale of sex, money and lobbying. So in January, the committee took the rare move of bringing in a special counsel, Carol Elder Bruce, on contract.

Bruce, a partner at K&L Gates, took time from her usual corporate defense practice to lead a reinvigorated inquiry, drawing on her experience from the independent-counsel inquiries into former Republican Attorney General Edwin Meese III and former Democratic Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. With a team from her firm and the committee, she issued new subpoenas, ordered depositions and completed a 75-page public report that found evidence Ensign had broken federal law. Three months after her appointment, Ensign was gone.

Ethics Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) hailed Bruce’s work as “extraordinary,” while Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the vice chairman, said that of all his interactions with lawyers, he had “never known anyone more professional.”

The key, said Bruce, 62, was to approach the case without regard to politics while maintaining perspective about the stakes. “You’re not there to necessarily make a case,” she said, “but if you do make a case, you get it right.” — David Ingram