W. Neil Eggleston
W. Neil Eggleston (Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

For the first time since taking office, President Obama has looked outside his close circle of advisers to fill the top legal post at the White House.

W. Neil Eggleston, the Kirkland & Ellis partner named last week as White House counsel, has spent years immersed in White House and congressional investigations and has represented top companies in high-stakes fights. Kathryn Ruemmler, Obama’s top in-house attorney since June 2011, plans to return to private practice in May.

Eggleston has the background and political connections to navigate the myriad of national issues that will confront him as Obama’s fourth White House counsel, according to Washington lawyers who know him.

Yet Eggleston is a relative ­outsider, particularly for a president often described as insular. The president’s first White House counsel, Gregory Craig, served as an Obama presidential campaign adviser. His second counsel, Perkins Coie partner Robert Bauer, was his longtime campaign attorney. Ruemmler, who’d earlier held a front-office post under Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., was serving in the White House counsel’s office when the president promoted her.

“She has by now a vast depth on every issue, which Neil will have to develop,” said Jamie Gorelick, who leads the defense and government-contracts practice at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. “Quite obviously, she has an excellent personal relationship with the president, which Neil will have to develop.”

“He’s a quick learner,” she added.

Obama released only a brief written statement announcing his pick. “Neil brings extraordinary expertise, credentials and experience to our team,” the president said. “He has a passion for public service, is renowned for his conscientiousness and foresight, and I look forward to working closely with him in the coming years.”

Craig, now a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said Ruemmler might be better versed in U.S. Department of Justice affairs, but Eggleston has the depth when it comes to politics, particularly regarding Capitol Hill. “That’s invaluable to the president,” Craig said.

Eggleston did not return messages seeking comment.

During the past 20 years, Eggleston has handled numerous cases involving the White House. He counseled the Clin­ton administration on executive privilege during the Monica Lewinsky investigation and represented former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel during the criminal prosecution of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Eggleston was Hill counsel during the Iran-Contra hearings and was a White House lawyer under President Bill Clinton between 1993 and 1994, during the Whitewater investigation. Eggleston has represented secretaries of labor and transportation and U.S. senators in ethics inquiries. In 2007, he served as counsel to Sara Taylor, a former political director for President George W. Bush, who was questioned during the investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Eggleston “is widely respected and well-liked — he’s smart and savvy and knows the place,” said Craig, who joined Skadden in 2010. “I think the president will respect a good lawyer when he sees one.”

POLITICALLY CONNECTED, SAVVY

Federal campaign records show Eggleston has donated thousands of dollars in recent years to Democratic members of the Senate, including Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and gave to Hillary Clinton’s presidential run in 2008.

Robert Raben, president of lobbying and consulting firm the Raben Group, said Eggleston has “a significant bench” of government officials and news reporters to call on. “That is so helpful, not only for intel gathering, but a sense of perspective,” Raben said.

Eggleston joins the White House at a time when legal issues are front-page headlines. Obama’s proposals to reform national security surveillance haven’t ended calls for reform from privacy advocates, and court challenges on the issue remain. There are continued calls for transparency on drone strikes. Last week, the Justice Department unveiled a new push to overhaul — and expedite — the clemency process. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected by this summer to rule on the scope of the president’s recess appointment power.

On the Hill, Republicans continue to impede judicial and executive nominations. Ruemmler last year inserted her voice into the nominations debate, advocating for the confirmation of Obama’s picks for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. For Eggleston, the role could prove all the more complicated if Republicans gain control of the Senate in November.

ONGOING INVESTIGATIONS

Eggleston will have to jump into the middle of several congressional investigations. The inquiries include accusations the Internal Revenue Service targeted political groups over tax-exempt status, and the press for information from the Justice Department about the botched gun sting Operation Fast and Furious.

House Republicans in 2010 sued the attorney general over access to internal DOJ documents over which the White House has asserted executive privilege. A federal trial judge in Washington refused to throw out the lawsuit, setting up a clash between the legislative and executive branches. A hearing in the case is set for May 15.

“Whether a president is a Republican or a Democrat, the last two years of the second term is likely to be filled with investigations, and that is something Neil knows very well and has abundant experience with,” Gorelick said.

Mark Filip, a partner in Kirkland’s Chicago and Washington offices who leads the firm’s government-­enforcement defense and internal-investigations group, described Eggleston as a well-rounded generalist. His recent work included representing Dell Inc. executive James Schneider in a 2010 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit against the company. Eggleston was part of a Kirk­land team that represented the Science Applications International Corp.’s board of directors in litigation in the aftermath of the company’s $500 million forfeiture to the Justice Department in 2012.

“I think he’ll be a great White House counsel because whatever comes — and you don’t always see the future — whatever comes he’s going to be really strong at it,” said Filip, a former deputy attorney general during the Bush administration.

Filip recalled a time when Kirkland needed to counsel top executives at a large company on a problem that had developed quickly. There was no time to put together computer presentations and pages of bullet-pointed options, and no time for a week of legal research. Eggleston, Filip said, showed a sense of calm in a tense situation. (He declined to name the company.)

“He helped them think through those issues and consider alternatives,” Filip said. “Just a very, very mature informed judgment that he had developed in a variety of different settings over many years.”

At the end of one such telephone call, “I thought to myself, OK, I guess that’s what everyone’s talking about,” Filip said. “No legal institution could have Neil Eggleston walk out the door and not feel like one of your best ballplayers just walked off the field.”

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com.