Justin Fairfax of Venable and John Adams of McGuireWoods
Justin Fairfax of Venable and John Adams of McGuireWoods ()

Virginia politics is familiar territory for Washington, D.C.-based Venable and Richmond’s McGuireWoods. Still, they recently found themselves in a rare situation for Big Law, with current lawyers at both firms earning party nominations when the state held its primary elections on June 13.

Justin Fairfax, a counsel at Venable, and John Adams, the partner who heads McGuireWoods’ white-collar department, are running for Virginia lieutenant governor and attorney general, respectively. Fairfax is a Democrat who bested two other candidates in the primary; the current lieutenant governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, is up for governor. Adams is a Republican who was uncontested in his nomination.

While it’s fairly clear that Adams would leave his firm if he wins the attorney general position, a full-time job, it’s not yet set whether Fairfax could maintain ties to his firm if he becomes the state’s part-time lieutenant governor. (The primary job of the lieutenant governor is to cast tie-breaking votes in the Virginia Senate and succeed the governor if that office becomes vacant. Its secondary role is a less official one: grooming a candidate for the governorship or other top political roles.)

“Hopefully, when Justin’s elected we’ll confront the ethical questions on what does that mean to continue to be a lawyer at Venable,” Brian Schwalb, Venable’s Washington partner in charge, said after the primary vote. “It’s just a primary win, so he’s got some hard work in front of him to win the general election. We don’t want to be too elated yet.”

Adams is currently on a leave of absence at McGuireWoods. Fairfax is still working on some firm matters part time, according to his campaign chairman, Venable partner Larry Roberts.

Big Law in Virginia History

Though it’s unusual for many large firms to send their lawyers into elections, both firms have been in this place before.

Fairfax would be the third Venable lawyer to juggle a legal practice with elected office. The others are James Shea, a former firm chairman who is now seeking the governor’s office in Maryland, and Karl Racine, a former Venable managing partner currently serving as D.C.’s first elected attorney general.

McGuireWoods has strong state political ties too, having hosted three former Virginia attorneys general at the firm. Richard Cullen, who was appointed to be the state’s top lawyer in 1997, is still the firm’s chairman, while former McGuireWoods affiliates William Broaddus is retired and Jerry Kilgore moved to Cozen O’Connor in February.

The path Fairfax could take professionally—from Big Law to a part-time statehouse job—isn’t unprecedented either.

The State Bar of Virginia makes clear that an elected state official can’t hold a General Assembly seat if he or she works for a lobbying or law firm that advocates for clients in the statehouse. This prohibition notably played out in 2014, when Richard “Rip” Sullivan Jr., then a Reed Smith lawyer for almost three decades, won a seat in the House of Delegates. Sullivan resigned from Reed Smith and joined Bean Kinney & Korman, a smaller Northern Virginia firm that does not lobby.

The path from public office to a big firm is smoother. For instance, Dave Albo, who’s been in the Virginia House of Delegates for almost a quarter century, will leave his small firm Albo & Oblon to join Washington law firm Williams Mullen on his retirement from politics later this year.

Former Virginia delegate Whittington Clement, now head of Hunton & Williams’ state lobbying group, made a similar move. “My legal training was in the field of estate planning, trusts, wills, probate administration. If I had done that after government service, government service would not have moved my ball forward. I don’t do that now,” Clement said.

Fairfax’s opponent, Republican Jill Vogel, could face heightened job prospects later, too, if she wins and continues to build her political brand. Vogel is a state senator and serves as managing partner at the small Loudoun County political law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky.

Supportive Firms

Until November’s general statewide election, the firms are maintaining ties to their candidates.

“That was incredibly helpful to me, to have a firm that was supportive,” AG candidate Adams said about his decision to run. His leave of absence commenced about two months ago, when he realized he was uncontested in the primary. It wouldn’t have made sense for Adams to keep working, he said.

“The minute you advise a client, you really commit to them. It’s not uncommon for me to have six events a day” for the campaign, Adams said. He is challenging the incumbent attorney general, Mark Herring.

For the firms, meanwhile, the benefits of having one of their own as a prominent candidate has to be weighed against the potential loss of a key business generator.

Fairfax “was viewed as a rising star and could help the litigation group in the Tysons office with his visibility in Virginia,” Roberts said when his firm recruited Fairfax to the firm in 2015. Fairfax, once an assistant U.S. attorney, previously ran for Virginia attorney general four years ago. He lost to Herring.

“I actually would have been happy if Justin had waited another four years, because I thought he had such a bright future as a lawyer,” Roberts said.