President Barack Obama yesterday nominated Mary Jo White, a former Southern District U.S. Attorney and now a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton as the next chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

White, 65, a white-collar defense lawyer, has been at Debevoise since 2002. Her nomination to lead the Securities & Exchange Commission brought high praise from practitioners who said she would bring a balanced and fair approach to the job based on her prosecutorial and defense experience, a background that brought incredible visibility to Debevoise & Plimpton’s litigation department.

Mary Jo White, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton and a former U.S. attorney, speaks at the White House yesterday after President Barack Obama announced he had chosen her as the next chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
NEWSCOM/Larry Downing

“She brought to Debevoise a tremendous ability to attract very high quality business and did attract very high quality business,” said Patricia Hynes, senior counsel at Allen & Overy who focuses on complex securities, commercial and criminal matters. “People generate business in large part based on reputation and she had a great reputation, and clients came to her.”

White has been chair of the firm’s litigation department, helping bring in many clients including Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis and JPMorgan Chase.

She was such a draw to clients that the firm had to hire a legal assistant whose job it was to respond to all the people who wanted to hire her, said litigation cochair John Kiernan. “I would say she’s been one of the top 10 most in demand lawyers in America,” he said.

She also attracted talent. Among those she bought to the firm were litigators Paul Berger, Helen Cantwell, Matthew Fishbein, Andrew Ceresney, James Johnson and former federal judge and U.S. Attorney Michael Mukasey.

Some attorneys questioned how Debevoise could fill her role.

“It’s a huge challenge for them,” said one securities partner at a New York firm who declined to be identified. “She ran it. She was the most visible person in the firm in the litigation space. She has credibility that few others can hope to achieve. Anytime you have a person like that who is a real leader and who is the face of the entire practice, when you lose someone like that, it’s a challenge to fill the position.”

But Hynes and other defense lawyers said that Debevoise’s litigation department is full of talent.

Kiernan, who will continue to lead the practice, said in an interview, that his group will stay busy. He said overall litigation revenue at Debevoise will likely be higher in 2013 than 2012.

White’s reputation is built from years in private practice and as U.S. attorney for the Southern District from 1993 to 2002, the only woman to hold the position.

At Debevoise, she took part in an internal corruption investigation at Siemens AG, represented health care provider HCA, and international companies in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigations, among other work.

In a statement, Michael Blair, presiding partner at Debevoise, said the firm is “very proud that our partner and colleague Mary Jo White has once again been called to return to public service in a vitally important role.”

“All of us who know and work with Mary Jo know that her extraordinary intellect, energy and experience, combined with her bedrock integrity, will serve our country exceptionally well as she takes on the important responsibility of chairing the Securities and Exchange Commission,” Blair said.

In a statement provided by the firm, White said it was an honor to be nominated but “it is not without mixed emotion, however, and if confirmed I will certainly miss working alongside my very talented colleagues at Debevoise for whom I have deep respect.

“Debevoise has built an unparalleled practice and assembled an extraordinarily gifted team, and I know that they will continue to provide our clients with the highest level of service they have come to expect from the firm,” White’s statement said.

View From Both Sides

Elkan Abramowitz of Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello & Bohrer said White is one of the smartest and most effective lawyers he has ever encountered. Most recently, SEC chairs generally come from an industry or academic side, but she has knowledge of the industry and enforcement, he said.

“It’s a perfect choice,” he said. “It brings depth to the position that hasn’t been there in a long time. …In a supervisory role, it’s extremely important to have had both sides of the representation. You understand when there’s a good argument being made to you, and you understand when there’s a silly argument being made.”

Hynes, of Allen & Overy, added that White’s “background of being both the prosecutor and on the defense side is one of the biggest qualifications she has. She knows the practical realities of both sides.” She said her balanced background “will achieve a balanced result.”

Former Southern District Judge Barbara Jones, now a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder and a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District, said White was “a brilliant lawyer” and a “problem solver.”

“She’s very smart, she’s tough when she has to be and an incredibly quick study. She’s just a very effective lawyer,” Jones said.

Joseph Allerhand, who co-heads Weil, Gotshal & Manges’ securities litigation practice, said “she will be tough but fair and she knows both sides.”

Robert Giuffra, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, noted that White would be one of the more experienced SEC chairs in history based on her broad experience.

Alan Vinegrad, a partner in the Covington & Burling’s white collar defense and trial practice groups, said, “if she thinks that change is required, she’ll be bound and determined to bring it about and I think she’ll succeed.”

“She’s smart, she’s experienced, she’s savvy and she knows how to get things done. And she leads,” Vinegrad said. “Those are the qualities that position demands.”

Other attorneys said they believed her work in the U.S. Attorneys office signaled a tough approach at the SEC.

“Her nomination is a strong message from the Obama administration that SEC will be a tough cop on Wall Street,” said Eugene Goldman, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery. He also said she would be fair and “bring her knowledge of the inner workings of companies to her job.”

Marc Powers, securities litigation partner at Baker & Hostetler, said her nomination is a “clear signal by the administration that it still intends to keep up the enforcement efforts of that agency and to continue to be tough on wrongdoers.”

“Her willingness to go back inside the government suggests to me that she still has a fondness and a feeling of duty to the government calling of bringing charges and cases against people who are wrongdoers” and to protect the investing public, Powers said.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said, “Mary Jo is one of the lions of the New York bar. She is fantastic. She is someone of great stature whom all of us in the legal community greatly respect and admire. It couldn’t be a better appointment.”

White is married to John White, a partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore who is a former SEC lawyer and now co-head of the corporate governance and board advisory practice at Cravath.

Mary Jo White, 65

Professional: Partner and head of litigation practice at Debevoise & Plimpton, 2002 to present; Southern District U.S. attorney, 1993-January 2002; first assistant U.S. attorney and acting U.S. attorney in the Eastern District, 1990 to 1993; litigation partner at Debevoise, 1983-90; Southern District assistant U.S. attorney, 1978-81; Debevoise associate, 1976-78.

Education: B.A., College of William and Mary, 1970; J.D., Columbia Law School, 1974

Personal: Married to John W. White, a corporate partner at Cravath Swain & Moore and cochair of its corporate governance and board advisory practice (from 2006-2008, he served as director of the division of corporation finance at the SEC); one son.

Her nomination will have to be confirmed by the Senate. She would replace Elisse Walter, a George W. Bush appointee who took over as chair in December when Mary Schapiro announced she would step down.

Obama also yesterday renominate Richard Cordray, a former prosecutor, to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. With the nominations, the president said the two attorneys in top enforcement roles will help ensure the implementation of consumer protection efforts and Wall Street reforms.

Prosecutor Role

White’s tenure in the U.S. Attorney’s Office was defined by high-profile terrorism cases but also her aggressive efforts in targeting both street crime, through prosecutions of violent gangs in drug and gun cases, and white-collar crime and securities fraud cases.

During an interview on leaving the Southern District in 2002, White said she was proud that her office tripled the number of securities fraud indictments as part of what she called “an effort to get at the more systematic problems.”

White put pressure on major Wall Street firms, holding companies responsible for the actions of low-level employees or charging a company criminally.

Among noteworthy prosecutions during her tenure were the investigation of Bennett Funding Group executive Patrick R. Bennett, who bilked investors out of almost $700 million and the indictment against the Daiwa Bank of Japan, which was accused of hiding over $1 billion in trading losses. The bank was forced to close up shop in the United States.

White was also in pursuit of fugitive financier Marc Rich when the man who appointed her in 1993, President Bill Clinton, pardoned Rich in the closing moments of his administration, a decision that reportedly left White furious. She was later appointed by then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate the Clinton pardons.

But criminal charges were not the only way she leveraged the reputation and authority of the prosecutor’s office to effect change.

“I feel strongly as a philosophical matter that the way to go, most broadly, at white-collar crime is to look at what happens at major institutions,” she said. “You have to look very closely at corporate culture. Sometimes it has meant changes in the company, whether in its compliance program, or the company has agreed to having an outsider on its board of directors or agreed to enhance its internal controls.”

Terror Cases

Under her leadership, the U.S. Attorney’s office also prosecuted Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman for seditious conspiracy in connection with a plot to blow up New York City landmarks, and twice prosecuted Ramzi Yousef, first for his role in a plot to blow up U.S. airlines and then in connection to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

And it was White’s office that indicted Osama bin Laden and successfully prosecuted four men in the 1998 al-Qaida-led bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Prosecutions are continuing to this day on a superseding indictment to the original indictment charging bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. forces in 2011.