Mary Jo White. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)
When Mary Jo White was the leader of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission less than a year ago, her phone calls had the power to start a corporate crisis. Now White is being branded as the first person for a CEO to ring when chaos strikes.
Debevoise & Plimpton, the firm White returned to in February after her nearly four-year term as SEC chair ended, announced Thursday a new “Strategic Crisis Response and Solutions Group” led by White. The group is comprised of six “crisis teams” with partners across the globe that can respond to financial and securities problems, corporate investigations and cybersecurity incidents, among other issues.
While the crisis team was formed in the wake of one of the more significant corporate crises in recent times—the passenger removal fiasco at United Airlines Inc.—White said it was not developed as a response to any particular public issue. Rather, it is meant to be an easy way for clients to find the expertise that Debevoise has to offer in an environment where White said crises happen more frequently and can balloon at a faster pace.
“There are more (crises) and they move faster, certainly because of social media,” White said. “That makes it all the more important for clients to get to the right expertise to respond quickly.”
One particular kind of crisis that has developed in recent months stems from President Donald Trump’s Twitter account. His Tweets about companies including retailer Nordstrom Inc., aviation giant The Boeing Co. and outdoor apparel maker L.L. Bean Inc. have thrown those companies into the public discourse, creating the need for a response.
White said that Debevoise has counseled clients on how to respond to a Tweet from Trump, developing a number of templates to guide a company’s response. (Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton put out a “social media attack” survival guide for the Trump era earlier this year.)
White is no stranger to helping clients caught in the crosshairs of the real estate mogul-turned president. In 2007, she and fellow Debevoise litigation partner Andrew Ceresney—who returned to the firm earlier this year after serving as White’s director of enforcement at the SEC—deposed Trump for a libel suit brought against a former New York Times reporter. (The suit was eventually dismissed.)
In reporting on a 170-page deposition last year, The Washington Post said that White and Ceresney caught Trump in 30 falsehoods, including inflating the cost of a membership to his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida; boosting the number of people his company employed; and claiming to have never taken a loan from his wealthy father. In an interview Thursday, White mostly declined to comment on Trump deposition.
“It was interesting,” she said. “That I will say.”
Debevoise’s new crisis teams are branded around a powerful group of litigators: 16 former assistant U.S. attorneys or lawyers at the U.S. Department of Justice; the former acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s criminal division; the former deputy assistant attorney general for national security; a former U.S. district court judge; and, of course, White and Ceresney.
White’s return to private practice has been a return to a partnership for both White and her husband, John White, who removed himself from the equity partnership at Cravath, Swaine & Moore during his wife’s tenure as SEC chair, claiming it would distance him from conflicts. In February, he re-joined the lockstep firm’s partnership after a four-year stint as Cravath’s sole non-equity partner.
At the SEC, White earned about $165,000 a year in her role as chair. The year before she left for the regulator, White earned more than $2.4 million as a Debevoise partner, according to federal government ethics disclosure forms.
White said Thursday that she has been “very busy” since her return to the firm in February, but declined to comment on specific matters she has handled. One thing remains the same for the 69-year-old native of Kansas City, Missouri: She sleeps four hours a night.
“I’ve always done that,” she said. “It’s a DNA thing.”
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