Williams & Connolly’s role defending Hillary Clinton in her email controversy has put a fresh focus on the Washington, D.C., litigation powerhouse, and revived its association with the Clintons’ legal troubles.
But the Clinton investigation isn’t the only reason the firm has had an uncommon year.
Last week, Robert Barnett, Williams & Connolly’s long-time executive committee chair and one of Washington’s most well-known lawyers, passed the leadership baton to partner Dane Butswinkas, a commercial litigator. And there have been other changes at the top of the firm, which typically shies away from discussing its inner workings.
Williams & Connolly officially releases only the most minimal information about the partnership. It has hired only one lateral partner in 30 years, Kannon Shanmugam, brought in to shape its appellate and U.S. Supreme Court advocate efforts after he spent four years in the U.S. Solicitor General’s office. The firm insists that there are no true practice groups or departments dividing the firm internally. Its sole office is one of the increasingly few law firm offices in Washington not to have downsized or moved in recent years. And don’t even ask about law firm mergers.
“We always try to stay true to our culture and our traditions. We’ve always gone our own way. We’ve resisted the trends,” firm managing partner Kevin Hodges said.
Yet even Hodges’ title is a recent nod by the firm to the evolution of the legal industry, where nearly every firm has shored up its management style and attempted to bolster its public image. Before last year, Williams & Connolly had no managing partner.
“I’m trying to take some of the day-to-day administrative and management tasks off the plate of the executive committee,” Hodges said in an interview on Thursday. “It seemed like an efficient way to manage the firm.”
Previously, the executive committee ran the firm. “The executive committee is made up of some of the busiest and most accomplished lawyers,” he added, meaning they’re frequently pulled out of the office on business, such as for trial work.
Barnett, meanwhile, stepped down from his position as executive committee chair on July 1, making room for Butswinkas. He remains an executive committee member. Barnett turns 70, the firm’s age of retirement, this August.
The firm also hired a marketing, business development and client relations director away from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. It previously had a manager-level staff member in a similar role, who left for another firm in September. Its brand needed to be varnished.
“I’m a native Washingtonian and very aware of the gravitas of the firm,” said Jeanne Brown, who took the marketing director job a few months ago. Brown started to work on building client teams, branding, databases, a revamped website. “You name it, we don’t have it, and we’re on the way to getting it,” she joked about the marketing tasks at hand.
The website, prior to two months ago, was so old that its lawyer photographs were shaded black-and-white, and the late firm founder Edward Bennett Williams still had prominent placement in the minimalist images illustrating the site. The site didn’t display cleanly on a mobile device.
It “was overdue for a refresh,” Hodges said. The new site lists lawyers’ areas of specialization more clearly, and has updated all photos.
Firm leaders assert that despite the online face-lift and rejiggering of management roles, major change is not underway at Williams & Connolly. Its role this presidential election — with of counsel David Kendall representing Hillary Clinton on the congressional investigation of the Benghazi terrorist attacks and on the U.S. Justice Department and FBI investigations of her emails, for which she was cleared this week — increases its visibility but not its stature as a D.C. mainstay.
Williams & Connolly has represented political stars on criminal matters and trials for decades, from Edward Bennett Williams’ defense of former Secretary of the Treasury John Connally, to senior partner Brendan Sullivan’s counsel to Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North and cabinet Secretary Henry Cisneros in the Iran-Contra affair and the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Kendall, who has been Hillary and Bill Clinton’s attorney for two decades, represented the president during the Whitewater investigation and impeachment.
While the Clinton email and Benghazi investigations gave the firm an extra political charge this year, Williams & Connolly isn’t a go-to firm for political campaigns. Marc Elias of Perkins Coie is advising Clinton’s campaign.
Barnett is one exception: for years, he has represented both Democrats and Republicans, often on book deals and employment contracts. He played Sen. Bernie Sanders in Clinton’s primary debate prep last year.
“It’s not something people tend to dabble in, because the stakes are high if you get it wrong,” Stefan Passantino said of political law, the practice area that he leads at Dentons. He served as Newt Gingrich’s campaign counsel in 2012 and has worked for conservative super PACS this presidential election.
Even without a political law wing, Williams & Connolly is a D.C. institution, and that’s not likely to change even if the firm tweaks its management model or its image.
“I think Williams & Connolly, for good or for ill, has expanded beyond its original core proficiency, which is white-collar defense, into broader commercial litigation,” said Robert Kelner, head of Covington & Burling’s political law and election group and its congressional investigations practices. “But it still is very unique as a firm that is heavily focused on litigation. That continues to set it apart from most other large Washington firms.”