James Comey. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)
After upending the presidential election and making enemies in both parties and the White House, James Comey leaves the FBI with some unusual political baggage.
What does that mean for his prospects in private practice?
“I think it’s a little soon to say,” said former Watergate special prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste, who is now a partner at Mayer Brown and who otherwise declined to comment. “I think Mr. Comey’s posture right now is sui generis.”
But with a resume that few other former government officials can match, many law firms will see Comey as a big catch, assuming he’s interested.
“Is anybody going to hire him to go against the Trump Justice Department? It might be a little difficult. But I think it’ll eventually blow over,” said James Koukios, a white-collar partner at Morrison & Foerster, after the president fired Comey this week.
Steve Nelson, a headhunter for the McCormick Group who has placed former prosecutors in private practice, said Comey’s expertise is an obvious draw for big corporate law firms. Comey not only served as deputy U.S. attorney general, as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and as a senior prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, but he also practiced previously at two defense firms—Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and McGuireWoods—and was general counsel of Lockheed Martin and mega-hedge fund Bridgewater Associates.
The optics of him working for a public company given the current political uproar may be more difficult to navigate, Nelson said.
“His mistakes for the most part are tough judgment calls,” Nelson said. “The question will be, will firms worry about their corporate clients?”
Top government lawyers do sometimes struggle to find a place in private practice. Often the exiles are hard-nosed prosecutors or regulators who made enemies in an industry, then have difficulty signing corporate clients they previously opposed.
Other times the political element is more obvious. Former White House Counsel and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales infamously could not find a firm to join after he resigned from the George W. Bush administration. He eventually landed at Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis in Tennessee in 2011 and is now dean at Belmont University College of Law.
Just as often, lawyers who faced political heat bounce back. Jason Weinstein, who left the Justice Department during the Operation Fast and Furious scandal, joined Steptoe & Johnson LLP and has become one of the firm’s top white-collar partners. Another example is Steven Bradbury, the Office of Legal Counsel head during the Bush administration who was among the lawyers who signed off on torture memos and now is a partner at Dechert.
A Well-Trod Path
Lawyers with credentials similar to Comey’s regularly find refuge and riches in Big Law.
Among other former deputy attorneys general, James Cole is now at Sidley Austin; David Ogden returned to Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; Mark Filip is among firm management at Kirkland & Ellis; George Terwilliger III is now with McGuireWoods; and Jamie Gorelick runs Wilmer’s regulatory department. Sally Yates, the last DAG of the Obama administration, was similarly fired by Trump this year and has not yet announced her next career step.
As for former U.S. attorneys in Manhattan, Comey succeeded Mary Jo White in the position. She later became chairwoman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and is now senior chairwoman of Debevoise & Plimpton. Preet Bharara, the most recent SDNY lead prosecutor who was also fired by Trump, has joined NYU School of Law, at least for now.
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