Christopher Porrino, a legal adviser to outgoing Gov. Chris Christie in three different positions over the course of the administration, is returning to Lowenstein Sandler as partner and chairman of the litigation department.
It’s a position that Porrino, state attorney general since his August 2016 confirmation, has held before, and one that he picked over other opportunities, he told the Law Journal in an interview Thursday.
The position “has the benefit of being fitted already,” Porrino said. “It’s not like I’m going to have to get to know 300 people again.”
“When you get to this point in your career, doing what you want to do for a living with people you want to be with makes a difference,” he added.
Porrino plans to resign Jan. 16, Inauguration Day, and start at Lowenstein Sandler the following day. Joining him at the firm will be First Assistant Attorney General Peter Slocum, according to a Lowenstein Sandler release.
Porrino said he had a shot at “some in-house opportunities … and some business opportunities,” though he declined to name the suitors. “At the end of the day, I’m a trial attorney.”
It’s been some years since “trial attorney” was Porrino’s job description for any significant length of time. In 2012 he was made director of the Division of Law, under then-Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, and subsequently became acquainted with Christie, who as of 2014 appointed him his chief counsel. He returned to Lowenstein Sandler in mid-2015, but was nominated, and ultimately confirmed, for attorney general about a year later.
Among Porrino’s priorities as attorney general was to carry out Christie’s mission to address opioid abuse. Most recently, the office filed civil actions alleging illicit sales practices against opioid makers Insys and Purdue Pharma. He also, with the help of others in the Attorney General’s Office, crafted and implemented a rule change that limited opioid prescriptions to a five-day supply.
That was an effort to work around lawmakers, Porrino told the Law Journal.
“That five-day rule was the strictest in the country,” he said. “The Legislature had been knocking it around for years.”
Among his management accomplishments were year-over-year decreases in office spending on outside counsel. According to data provided by the office last year, outside counsel spend for calendar 2016 was $28 million, down 7.6 percent from $30.3 million in 2015, and down 9.7 percent from $31 million in 2014.
Porrino in the interview said outside counsel spend “will be down again” for 2017, by “several million.”
During his tenure, Porrino also was tasked with overseeing prosecutors in implementing new bail guidelines that went into effect in 2017.
Also, Porrino helped tack juvenile justice reform, and Christie earlier this month announced the closure of two dated juvenile detention facilities.
Apart from his efforts on opioids, Porrino said he was proud of a civil rights suit his office lodged last fall against Mahwah, alleging that the township enacted ordinances aimed at staving off a perceived influx of Orthodox Jews.
“People I trust told me it was a cause I shouldn’t be taking up, but I knew it was the right thing to do,” he said.
There were bumps along the way for Porrino, including a public records suit by Democratic lawmakers claiming the office had failed to turn over records related to the alleged political firing years earlier of Assistant Hunterdon County Prosecutor Bennett Barlyn, who ended up settling with the state for $1.5 million. The office also faced a suit, filed last May by three deputy attorneys general, claiming that the office engaged in a pattern of disparate treatment and discrimination against African-Americans based on race by paying them less and denying them promotions and other opportunities.
Porrino declined to comment on those suits, but said, ”[In] this job, often the person in the title can get caught in the political crossfire,” but the office “stayed out of politics” during his time.
That’s been a theme for Porrino during his career, and his public sector practice was something of an anomaly from the beginning: He never previously worked for Christie and had no government practice experience, prosecutorial or otherwise. He became known to Chiesa via Christie’s former assistants in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, against whom Porrino had handled cases.
Though public records show Porrino has donated to candidates from both major parties, he continues to be “hopelessly unaffiliated,” he said.
Political independence is ”not by accident anymore,” Porrino said. “I don’t feel like I’m politically connected enough to either party to be affiliated with one.”
Porrino spoke highly of his longtime boss, whose popularity dropped in his second term, amid the Bridgegate scandal and a failed run at the Republican nomination for president.
“I didn’t know Chris Christie before I got to Trenton; I’d never met him,” Porrino said. “I’ve since gotten to know him very well. … He’s a talented lawyer, as talented a politician, and as good a friend as I could ever hope to know.”
“Being in Gov. Christie’s cabinet was a privilege,” he added. “When the dust settles on this administration, I do think the accomplishments and big initiatives that he led will start to shine.”
In a statement, Lowenstein Sandler managing partner Gary Wingens said Porrino ”is deeply respected across the political spectrum as a prosecutor, problem solver, and negotiator, despite serving during otherwise tumultuous political times.” Wingens added that Porrino “brings with him to the firm a strong national reputation, and we’re excited for his impressive experience and leadership abilities to bolster our already thriving litigation practice.”
Porrino began his legal career in 1993 in the litigation department of Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith, Ravin, Davis & Himmel in Woodbridge, where, aside from white-collar defense, he handled commercial litigation, professional liability defense, antitrust, and insurance, bank and securities fraud. He made partner eight years later. At Greenbaum Rowe, he worked alongside prominent defense lawyer Michael Himmel. They, along with Robert Kipnees, garnered national attention in 1997 by obtaining a not-guilty verdict in a price-fixing case against Appleton Papers Inc. of Wisconsin and CEO Jerry Wallace, despite a four-year Justice Department investigation.
Porrino came along in 2004 when Roseland’s Lowenstein Sandler lured away Himmel to head its expanding white-collar criminal practice. More high-profile cases came: he and Himmel represented Monmouth County real estate developer Solomon Dwek, who in 2009 pleaded guilty to masterminding a $50 million bank fraud scheme. With time, Porrino did an increasing amount of civil work, through which he was able to generate more business, and ultimately became co-head of the litigation department. Porrino, as a Himmel disciple, got significant exposure, and declined several opportunities to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he previously told the Law Journal.
Last month Gov.-elect Phil Murphy said he’ll nominate Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal to be the next attorney general. Porrino spoke highly of Grewal, saying the two had become friends.
It’s a job that Porrino never hesitates to point out has been his favorite.
“Nothing is as great and as fun,” he said. “Even on the worst days, they were still pretty good.”