Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld spent months preparing for the departure of one of the firm’s star appellate lawyers, Patricia Millett, who last week was confirmed for a slot on a key federal appeals court in Washington.
In August, Akin hired Pratik Shah, an assistant to the solicitor general with 13 U.S. Supreme Court arguments under his belt, as co-head of the firm’s appellate practice. Within a week, Shah argued for Sam’s Club — one of Millett’s clients — in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
Kim Koopersmith, the firm’s chairwoman, said Millett and other partners spoke with clients to assure them the firm was ­committed to advocating for them. By the time the Senate voted on Dec. 10 to confirm Millett to fill one of three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Koopersmith said, clients had given Shah an outstanding reception.
“The idea has been to be able to maintain a very high level of practice so that it is a seamless transition for our clients,” Koopersmith said. “They know we have really fantastic people in this area and we just continue to build on that.”
The Senate voted, 56-38, to confirm Millett, a veteran appellate advocate who has argued 32 times before the Supreme Court. The close vote reflected a political fight on Capitol Hill about the makeup of the D.C. Circuit, not Millett’s qualifications, which were never challenged during the confirmation process. Lawmakers from both parties said she had the credentials and experience to serve on a bench that’s often considered the nation’s second-highest court.
Without a rule change on filibusters in November pushed by Democrats, the vote might not have happened. Republicans initially blocked the nominations of Millett and two others to the D.C. Circuit — Cornelia “Nina” Pillard of Georgetown University Law Center and U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins in Washington.
When Millett did get a vote, two Republicans — Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — voted with Democrats for Millett. Six senators did not vote.
The Senate voted, 51-44, on Dec. 12 to confirm Pillard, the faculty co-director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. The D.C. Circuit will now have — for the first time — five active female judges. In a statement, President Obama said “Ms. Pillard has displayed an unwavering commitment to justice and integrity.”
Before those votes, Obama had placed one other person on the D.C. Circuit — former O’Melveny & Myers partner Sri Srinivasan, who recently served as a top lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice solicitor general’s office.
A vote for Wilkins, a former Venable partner, was not immediately set.
EYE ON THE FUTURE
Millett is the first judge in a decade to join the D.C. Circuit directly from a law firm. John Roberts Jr., who previously led the appellate practice at the legacy firm Hogan & Hartson, was appointed to the circuit in 2003.
Perceptions of any law firm are built by different things, but a former partner sitting on the D.C. Circuit says a lot about the firm and will help attract clients, said Thomas Goldstein, who created the Supreme Court practice at Akin Gump in 2006. (Goldstein is a now a name partner at Goldstein & Russell.)
“You hate to lose a great lawyer, but if you’re going to this is the way to do it,” Goldstein said. “And the firm was completely committed to the effort. They love Pattie but their legislative team was really involved in the process of making sure she got a fair hearing.”
Akin Gump had ample time to review its appellate practice and prepare for Millett’s potential departure.
“We have worked with Pattie, probably for the better part of a year, with an eye always towards the possibility that there might be other opportunities she might be worthy of undertaking,” Koopersmith said. “So we have kept an eye on how we are always going to be able to move this practice forward, and with some expectations in this area that people do move on to other positions.”
Akin Gump expects to continue to invest in the firm’s appellate practice. “Pratik’s credentials were pretty amazing and we think we’re going to have additional opportunities as well,” Kooper­smith said.
Millett’s confirmation marks the beginning of a period of change at the D.C. Circuit. The court hasn’t had a full slate of judges in years — giving lawyers who practice in the D.C. Circuit a new dynamic when it comes to deciding whether to ask the full court to rehear a panel’s decision.
Full-court hearings in the D.C. Circuit have declined steadily since the 1980s, Senior Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the D.C. Circuit wrote in the recent essay, “The Behavior of Federal Judges: A View from the D.C. Circuit,” which explored the rate of dissents on the court. Ginsburg, a former D.C. Circuit chief judge, wrote that the “declining numbers reflect in part the increasing level of mutual trust and respect among the judges.”
Jon Hacker, who leads the Supreme Court and appellate practice at O’Mel­veny, said he expects a period of adjustment as the judges and litigants feel out a new dynamic.
“I don’t expect the dynamic will feel that different, but these are new judges to the court and they’re going to be establishing their own record, and agencies will try to determine whether they’ll see things differently,” Hacker said.
“Change has been slow to come to the court and now we’re talking about something coming virtually overnight,” Hacker said. “I don’t think any of these three judges will be crusaders on anything before the court. I think they will apply the law equally.”
Contact Todd Ruger at email@example.com.