To law firms, a presidential election means more than debates and conventions and bumper stickers. It’s also a chance to acquire talent.

The revolving door between law firms and the federal government is always spinning, but every four years it speeds up as top lawyers in politically appointed posts are either forced out by a change in administration or burn out after stints in public service.

With their freshly burnished insider sheens, these lawyers can put a ho-hum practice on the map — and the sagging economy has done little to dampen their appeal. “Demand at the high end for top-level talent is as strong as it’s ever been, or even more,” said legal recruiter Jeffrey Lowe of Major, Lindsey & Africa, though he added that firms nowadays are less enthusiastic about hiring lawyers who held midlevel posts — the associate deputy assistant secretary types.

Covington & Burling partner John Veroneau agreed. “There is always strong demand for people in senior government posts, especially in areas with a lot of activity,” he said.

In the first half of the year, big law firms picked up at least 50 partners from various government agencies, according to ALM Legal Intelligence data, bolstering their white-collar, litigation, corporate and securities and lobbying practices. Health care, privacy and intellectual property are also hot areas.

Still, firms tend to be inherently cautious about making job offers. “Attorneys coming out of the government do not come with a book of business,” said Jordan Abshire, managing member of Abshire Legal Search. “Typically, leadership within the firm has identified a number of existing firm clients who could benefit from the lateral’s expertise.”

Another way firms hedge their bets is by gravitating toward former law firm partners who have a track record of business development, according to consultant Lisa Smith of Fairfax Associates. Hiring a lawyer who has only worked in government is “a crap shoot,” she said.

“We know many people don’t turn into business generators, and may end up as service partners,” said recruiter Cynthia Sitcov of Sitcov Director. “But in some cases, the ability to generate business is not so important.”

Legal public relations expert Elizabeth Lampert also warned that firms “need to be aware of how the agency attorney performed, what issues they were involved with and how that has impacted the firm’s current clients and their interests.”

While some leading lawyers like Andrew Schilling, a former civil division chief in the New York U.S. attorney’s office who went to BuckleySandler, or Mary Ellen Callahan, who stepped down as the chief privacy officer at the Department of Homeland Security to launch Jenner & Block’s privacy practice, have already departed, many prize picks remain.

Based on interviews with legal recruiters, law firm marketers and firm managers as well as independent research, The National Law Journal has identified a dozen government lawyers who are most likely to be sought after in the private sector.

Eric Holder Jr.: Attorney General Holder has guided the 10,000-lawyer agency through triumphs (combating terrorism and cybercrime, record-setting False Claims Act cases) and fiascoes (Fast and Furious, the proposal to try Guan­tánamo Bay detainees in Manhattan). A former partner at Covington & Burling, many predict he will return to Covington, but as one recruiter put it, “any law firm would be thrilled to have Eric Holder as a senior partner.” Boris Bershteyn: He is general counsel of the Office of Management and Budget and acting head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. His office is obscure but hugely influential, reviewing draft regulations across the government. Bershteyn was a 2006-07 clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter.
Preet Bharara: The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York has taken on everyone from the mob to Wall Street to elected officials. He is the former chief counsel to Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), but it’s yet unclear whether he will decamp for private practice. Patrick Fitzgerald: The former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois stepped down from his position in June and is being actively pursued by firms looking to boost their white-collar practices. He successfully prosecuted high-profile targets ranging from Rod Blagojevich to Scooter Libby.
David Kappos: The America Invents Act was the biggest change to the patent system in almost 60 years, and Kappos is steering the helm. As director of the Patent and Trademark Office, Kappos would be a welcome addition to any firm or company. Before joining the PTO, Kappos was assistant general counsel of intellectual property law for IBM. Cameron Kerry: The general counsel of the Commerce Department (and younger brother of former presidential candidate John Kerry) has been a leader on patent reform, privacy and data security — all areas where law firms are looking for expertise. Prior to joining Commerce, Kerry was a partner at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo.
Robert Khuzami: The head of the SEC’s Enforcement Division who has overseen the bureau’s biggest restructuring in decades, Khuzami would instantly elevate any firm’s securities practice. But as former general counsel for the Americas for Deutsche Bank, he may be more interested in an in-house job on Wall Street than a law firm partnership. Denis McInerney: The chief of DOJ’s fraud section, McInerney has overseen government efforts to curtail fraud in health care and financial services, as well as bringing record-setting cases under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the False Claims Act. He was formerly a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell.
David Meister: The Dodd-Frank Act transformed the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from obscure backwater to power player. Enforcement Division head Meister has been front and center, bringing major cases against financial industry giants. He’s a former partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Kathryn Ruemmler: As White House counsel, Ruemmler helped lead the defense of the Affordable Care Act and has been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court pick if Obama is re-elected. Before joining the administration, Ruemmler carved out a name for herself prosecuting former top Enron executives, and later as a partner at Latham & Watkins.
William Schultz: The acting general counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services, Schultz offers insider expertise on health care and food and drug law. A former partner at Zuckerman Spaeder, he launched the firm’s food and drug practice. Tony West: The No. 3 lawyer at the Justice Department, West oversees civil litigation, tax, civil rights and environmental cases. Major efforts include attacking restrictive state immigration laws and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill litigation. He’s a former partner at Morrison & Foerster.

Jenna Greene can be reached at jgreene@alm.com, and Matthew Huisman can be contacted at mhuisman@alm.com.