Thomas McGonigle, who serves as chief of staff to Delaware Governor Jack Markell, will step down from the position next month to manage the Wilmington, Del., office of Drinker Biddle & Reath. Mike Barlow, who is now chief legal counsel to the governor, will take over as chief of staff, the administration announced earlier this month. Barlow and McGonigle said Markell will now seek to fill Barlow’s present position.

McGonigle will resign from his current position later this month and will join Drinker Biddle on December 10. He will serve as outside general counsel for the firm and run its 10-attorney Delaware office.

“I’ll be practicing as an attorney as I did before, with a focus on administrative law and litigation,” McGonigle told Legal sibling publication Delaware Law Weekly. “I’ll be advising clients on such matters and I’ll also be helping to grow the firm’s Delaware office. Drinker Biddle is very interested in expanding its presence here in Delaware and I will be overseeing that.”

McGonigle joined the Markell administration after the governor’s 2008 election. In that role, he helped advance many of Markell’s first-term goals, including negotiating with the legislature and unions to enact a pay cut for state employees to help reduce Delaware’s $800 million budget deficit. He also assisted the governor in passing legislation that permitted table games in Delaware’s casinos.

Perhaps McGonigle’s most well-known achievement during his time in the administration was authoring a report questioning the Delaware Department of Transportation’s land reservation agreements regarding the proposed U.S. Route 113 North-South Project. The report stated that DelDOT did not demonstrate “necessary competence, judgment and diligence” in negotiating the land reservation agreements.

Drinker Biddle’s Wilmington attorneys already have a strong relationship with McGonigle, who was a partner in Wolf Block’s Delaware office until he left to join the governor’s office. Wolf Block dissolved in 2009 and its Wilmington attorneys left to establish Drinker Biddle’s footprint in Delaware in March of that year.

McGonigle said his familiarity with his new firm’s attorneys played a role in his decision.

“There are a couple of reasons I am going to Drinker Biddle,” he said. “I was very impressed with the firm’s lawyers and clients. Another big issue is that the lawyers I practiced with prior to joining the governor’s office are at the firm’s Delaware office. I felt very comfortable since I worked with those lawyers previously. That was a big part of my decision.”

The firm’s roster of Wilmington attorneys is already impressive. It includes William Quillen, who is both a former Delaware Supreme Court justice and a former chancellor of the Delaware Chancery Court, and Joseph Schoell, the chief legal counsel for then-Delaware Governor Ruth Ann Minner.

“I have a lot of respect for the firm and their lawyers in general,” McGonigle continued. “Being familiar with the lawyers in the Wilmington office was a big selling point.”

Although Drinker Biddle approached McGonigle about joining the firm, he said he always knew he would return to private practice after joining the governor’s team.

“I enjoyed the work I did for the governor’s office,” he said. “It was incredibly exciting, but I also enjoyed private practice and I think the time is right to return to private practice. When I joined the governor’s team I knew I wanted to go back to private practice at some point.”

A return to private practice after serving in public office is nothing new for McGonigle. He made a similar transition in 2001 when he joined Duane Morris after serving as chief legal counsel and policy adviser for former Delaware Governor Thomas Carper. The move was prompted by Carper’s election to the U.S. Senate during the 2000 election.

Often in Delaware, public officials who return to private practice rarely litigate. Typically, they work to bring new business into a firm or advise the partners. For example, former Delaware Governor Mike Castle joined DLA Piper last year in an advisory capacity. However, McGonigle expects to spend at least a portion of his time inside a courtroom.

“In the past, my practice involved litigation,” he said. “I suspect that will be the case again, but we will have to see how that develops.”

Specifically, McGonigle has practiced in commercial litigation, administrative law, affordable housing and community development, and governmental and regulatory matters.

Another key aspect of his new position is promoting Drinker Biddle’s Wilmington office to the firm’s other satellites. Most national firms with a footprint in the state will use their Delaware attorneys to serve as local counsel in litigation pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware and the Chancery Court.

“One of the important things I will be doing is going to the other offices and help them understand the talent that we have in the Delaware office,” he said. “I know our clients are aware of what we can do for them in Delaware. There is quite a bit of litigation that flows through this state and it is important that the firm’s Delaware footprint is fully utilized.”

He will also help expand Drinker Biddle’s Delaware office, but was coy about the firm’s specific targets for growth.

“We don’t want growth for growth’s sake,” he said. “We want to make sure we are smart about it and get quality lawyers and the right practice groups which make sense with the firm’s current focus. But we are very much interested in growing our office and that is something I will be focused on.”

McGonigle also said it was too early to discuss the timing of any possible expansion.

“You don’t want to create false timelines because each move needs to make sense on its own merits,” he said. “If a move makes sense in 2013, we will make a move in 2013. If it makes sense in 2014, then we will make a move in 2014.”

Meanwhile, Barlow said he plans to follow McGonigle’s path to advance the governor’s agenda on important issues such as creating jobs, improving the state’s education system and improving residents’ access to health care.

“I take a lot of personal fulfillment on working on these issues,” he said.

McGonigle said he is confident Barlow is the right person for his position.

“Mike is an incredibly bright guy and a hard worker,” he said. “The key to this job is just keep pushing ahead and moving forward with the agenda. He’s the perfect guy for the job and it creates continuity for the governor, which is important.” 

This article first appeared in Delaware Law Weekly, a Legal sibling publication.

Jeff Mordock can be contacted at 215-557-2485 or Follow him on Twitter @JeffMordockTLI. •