Mary Jo White.
Mary Jo White. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

Debevoise & Plimpton has created a new leadership position for Mary Jo White, who returned to the firm Wednesday after chairing the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for nearly four years under the Obama administration.

As senior chair at Debevoise, White said she will maintain a full-time practice as a partner and will also be a senior member on the firm’s management team, serving in an advisory role. The firm’s day-to-day management will still be handled by presiding partner Michael Blair and deputy presiding partner Bruce Yannett, she said in an interview.

White, 69, said her new role is not a step toward slowing down, adding she sleeps four hours a night and “I love to work.”

She said her practice will focus on counseling boards of directors in governance issues, compliance and enforcement issues, as well as representing clients facing government investigations, enforcement actions and litigation.

White, whose term at the SEC ended with Donald Trump’s inauguration, has previously practiced at Debevoise for long stretches, including before and after she served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002.

She said returning to private practice was an easy decision. While she had other opportunities, including at other law firms, she cited Debevoise’s “unmatched” bench of former federal prosecutors and regulators and former SEC officials, as well as the “very, very deep support” it could offer her practice.

During White’s tenure as chair, the commission brought more than 2,850 enforcement actions, more than any other three-year period in the SEC’s history, and obtained judgments and orders totaling more than $13.4 billion. In addition, White implemented an SEC policy to require admissions of wrongdoing in certain cases.

Under her leadership, the commission said it completed “the vast majority” of the agency’s mandates under the Dodd-Frank Act financial reform laws.

Now, banks, financial entities and investors are waiting to see what happens next to the law. Trump earlier this month signed an executive order ordering a review of U.S. financial regulatory laws, saying “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank.”

White said Wednesday she said she would be “quite concerned” if the core provisions of Dodd-Frank were eroded. “The core reforms of Dodd-Frank are very important to having strengthened our financial system and enhancing protection for investors in the market,” she said.

Still, she praised Trump’s pick to chair the SEC, Jay Clayton, a Sullivan & Cromwell corporate partner. She said Clayton will be “a very strong leader” and was knowledgeable about federal securities law and the markets. “The mission under his leadership will continue to be very strong in enforcement,” she said. “In terms of protecting investors and the market, it’s largely bipartisan.”

Back to Business

White earned about $165,000 as SEC chair. She is returning to one of the most profitable law firms on Wall Street, with average profits per partner reaching $2.625 million in 2015, according to The American Lawyer. The year before White left to lead the SEC, she received slightly more than $2.4 million from the firm, according to ethics disclosures.

White declined to discuss her compensation this year at Debevoise, other than noting Debevoise has a lockstep pay system.

Under ethics rules, White cannot appear before the SEC for two years and can’t work on any matter she handled for the government. Still, she said, “I think I will have a very full and active practice,” noting the potential to appear before other agencies and work on investigations and litigation.

While White’s repeated turns through the corporate and government worlds, including her return to advising the same sorts of entities she once regulated, may come under scrutiny, she said she adheres strongly to safeguards to prevent conflicts and she defended her moves.

Attorneys are better regulators and prosecutors when they have knowledge of the systems they’re regulating, she said. “It’s a good thing not only for clients but for the public,” she said.

Andrew Ceresney, who was SEC enforcement director under her leadership, also announced last month that he would return to Debevoise. He will rejoin the firm in March as litigation co-chair, the same title White held before leading the SEC.

Blair, Debevoise’s presiding partner, said in a statement that White’s “leadership and accomplishments are truly extraordinary, and her experience and judgment will be a tremendous asset to our clients and the firm.”