The revolving door makes the Washington legal market go round and, lately, it’s starting to spin faster between the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and law firms eager to snap up talent.
The 1,200-employee CFPB, which will be two years old in July, has seen a wave of departures, including a number of prominent lawyers who’ve been sought after by firms eager to burnish their credentials before the agency.
"It’s a hot area. There’s great demand," legal recruiter Cynthia Sitcov of Sitcov Director in Washington said. Partner Ann Director said that "knowing how it works inside and who plays what role is truly valuable."
Firms are always interested in hiring select lawyers from the government, but CFPB experience — at least for now — carries a special cachet, given that so few lawyers in private practice have worked at the bureau.
"Since the launch of the CFPB, law firms have been moving fast to brand themselves as having CFPB expertise," said legal marketing specialist Elizabeth Lampert of Elizabeth Lampert PR. Hiring an agency veteran — provided the lawyer "has prior experiences that are strong and compelling enough to attract clients — is one way to do so," she said.
In late May, BuckleySandler nabbed Benjamin Olson, who oversaw 40 lawyers in the bureau’s Office of Regulations. Earlier last month, Venable added partner Allyson Baker, who was among the initial team of enforcement lawyers at the agency, which was created by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010.
Other CFPB alums now at law firms include Ronald Rubin, who joined Hunton & Williams as a partner last fall, and Leonard Chanin, who returned to Morrison & Foerster as a partner.
"The CFPB’s aggressive approach, unusual internal procedures and penchant for secrecy have terrified a lot of clients," said Rubin, who was one of the agency’s first enforcement lawyers. "They really want to understand what goes on inside the bureau and they need good advice on how to deal with it, and there are very few people who can provide that right now."
Chanin, the former assistant director of the Office of Regulations, said that "people for decades have been dealing with the [Office of the Comptroller of the Currency] and the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission. There’s a fairly high degree of understanding how those agencies operate." But the CFPB, he said, has "a very different approach to supervising banks and financial institutions, so people are concerned."
Companies have hired bureau veterans, as well. In mid-May, Leonard Kennedy, who was the CFPB’s first general counsel before becoming a senior adviser to agency head Richard Cordray, began work at Neustar Inc. as senior vice president and general counsel.
Another former top CFPB attorney, senior enforcement counsel Deepak Gupta, left to found plaintiffs-side appellate boutique Gupta Beck, based in Washington, in 2012.
Most recently, chief of staff Garry Reeder quit to work with former deputy director Raj Date, who formed his own residential mortgage and consulting firm, Fenway Summer. Politico reported that two additional CFPB officials, Mitchell Hochberg and Christopher Haspel, are expected to follow.
While the list of departees sounds long, the CFPB said the agency’s attrition rate has "generally been consistent with the bureau’s expectations" — about 9 percent last year, with a comparable rate this year to date.
"For some who work here, the bureau is a careerlong commitment," a bureau spokeswoman said. "For others, the bureau presents an opportunity to do great things and accomplish their goals in a shorter period of time. We want employees from both ends of the spectrum."
Senior CFPB lawyers are bound by the same ethics rules that apply to the rest of the government — a yearlong ban on appearing before the agency (two years for the highest-level officials), as well as a lifetime ban on matters that the lawyer "personally and substantially" worked on while in government.
But from day one in private practice, ex-CFPB lawyers are free to offer insight to clients about the agency.
At BuckleySandler, Olson in coming weeks will visit more than a dozen clients around the country to "share his perspective on the way the bureau is looking at things these days," name partner Andrew Sandler said.
CFPB-related work has become a major practice area for the 150-lawyer financial-services specialty firm, where about half of the lawyers have worked on bureau-related matters. Firm clients include the 10 largest mortgage originators, nine of the 10 largest mortgage servicers and the top five credit card issuers.
"It was very important for us to have somebody who was very well regarded professionally and served in a senior position at the CFPB," Sandler said. "We have developed a deep understanding of the approach that the CFPB takes and credibility with the agency. Having Ben join us deepens that set of capabilities and our overall value to our clients on CFPB matters."
Olson acknowledged he received tremendous interest from firms after he decided to leave the CFPB. He joined BuckleySandler, which had profits per partner last year of $1.8 million, as counsel, and said he picked the firm for the depth and breadth of its financial services practice. (He declined to name any other firms that courted him.)
"Other firms weren’t able to offer what BuckleySandler offered: a platform. I didn’t want to put myself into the position of pretending to be a practice group unto myself," he said.
Likewise, Baker said that one of the reasons she was drawn to Venable was for its "really well-regarded group of financial-services attorneys."
Venable litigation chairman Geoffrey Garinther described Baker, who was lead counsel in the CFPB’s deceptive-marketing case against Discover Bank that settled for $214 million, as "a real trial lawyer." He continued, "We feel fortunate to have her here because, increasingly, clients need a litigator’s perspective at the beginning of an investigation."
Still, firm leaders and legal recruiters stressed that the demand for CFPB lawyers is uneven, and depends in large part on the person’s job at the agency and prior experience.
"If you could hire Richard Cordray, that would probably be a terrific move — assuming he had an interest in leaving — because he has served as the head of the agency, but more importantly, he brings a very impressive background that pre-dates his involvement with the CFPB," said Steven Bloom, a name partner at Frandzel Robins Bloom & Csato in Los Angeles. "A person who worked at the CFPB for a year is probably not going to look that impressive without a more substantial résumé."
Jenna Greene can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.