Daniel Meron has been a hot prospect for nine months.
Since he stepped down from his post as general counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services last December, Meron has been courted by some of Washington, D.C.'s top firms. He was a partner at Sidley Austin before joining HHS, and his old firm was in the hunt. Last month, Carter Phillips, Sidley's Washington managing partner, said the firm was pursuing Meron "aggressively."
Another player won the fight, however -- Latham & Watkins. Meron started there Monday as a partner and global co-chairman of the firm's health care and life sciences practice. It was a tight race, according to Phillips. Latham's Washington managing partner, Eric Bernthal, says Meron is "a great catch ... He has just one of these absolutely dazzling résumés."
Meron is just the latest lawyer to land as the election-year lateral shuffle begins in earnest. Regulatory lawyers like Meron who are evacuating the Bush administration are being snapped up. And a number of big-firm players may be prepping to leave their firms for a role in an Obama or a McCain administration. Forget, of course, that Barack Obama and John McCain are spending a good deal of their time on the campaign trail bashing Washington insiders. When Jan. 20 rolls around, "you're going to see a lot of new lawyers pouring out of the same Washington, D.C., law firms" as always, says Kirkland & Ellis partner Jay Lefkowitz, a veteran of the George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush administrations.
It's a bipartisan sentiment: Harold Ickes, a Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House insider, says that one good clue about what the new administration will look like is to examine the current campaign staffs. If that's the case, then Kirkland, Latham, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, among others, should prepare for some empty offices.
Not that they'll mind. Firms win both ways. They're getting top regulatory lawyers exiting the administration -- many of them simply returning home to big-firm life with a Rolodex full of new contacts. And they'll have friends in high places in a new administration. That's the kind of change a law firm can believe in.
RETURNING TO THE FOLD
Sidley shouldn't be too downhearted about losing out on Meron. He's one of at least 10 lawyers from the firm to have gone into the Bush administration. So far, three have returned. The most recent was Roger Martella Jr., who rejoined Sidley in July from the Environmental Protection Agency. He's been back less than two months, but Martella has already retained two new trade association clients for the firm. Though he would not name the associations, Martella says clients are contacting him primarily for his expertise in climate change and sustainability issues.
Other lawyers have returned to the big-firm fold in recent weeks. John Moot rejoined Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom as a partner after a three-year stint at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where he served as chief of staff and, before that, general counsel; Vernessa Pollard, associate chief counsel for enforcement at the Food and Drug Administration, went to Arnold & Porter as counsel in the firm's health care practice; and Gregory Mocek joined McDermott Will & Emery as partner in the energy derivatives markets practice after leaving the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, where he served as director of enforcement.
Most firms are looking for a home run like the one Kirkland scored back in the early 1990s with Paul Cappuccio. He joined the firm from the first Bush administration, where he reported to then-Attorney General William Barr. When Barr went on to become general counsel of Verizon, he contacted Cappuccio at Kirkland. "Barr ended up hiring Cappuccio here to do some of the most complex telecommunications work for Verizon," says Eugene Assaf, a senior partner in Kirkland's D.C. office. Cappuccio has since left Kirkland to become general counsel of Time Warner and now uses Kirkland as one of his principal outside litigation counsel. Business opportunities develop, Assaf says, when "you're hiring administration officials who are of the highest quality and their former colleagues end up as general counsel."
On the other side of the equation, both campaigns have large lineups of familiar big-firm players who could jump to an administration next year.
At Kirkland, appellate and litigation head Christopher Landau is a member of McCain's Justice Advisory Committee, while partner Jack Levin advises Obama on tax policy and Jewish community relations.
Latham, too, has a campaign presence. Maureen Mahoney, who leads Latham's appellate and constitutional practice, is a member of McCain's panel of justice advisers. Her name is circulating as a potential Supreme Court justice should a spot on the Court open up. Robert Sussman, who served as deputy administrator of the EPA during the Clinton administration, advises the Obama campaign on energy and environmental policy. He officially retired from Latham's partnership in December, but still works out of the firm's D.C. office as a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress.
WilmerHale's Jamie Gorelick served as Sen. Hillary Clinton's chief legal policy adviser during her primary bid and now supports Obama. "I am not as anxious to go back into government as others might be," she told Legal Times in June, but left the door open a crack. "I clearly would like to help any Democratic president." WilmerHale also has a representative at the McCain campaign: Counsel Rachel Brand, who recently joined the firm from the Justice Department, sits on the candidate's Justice Advisory Committee.
And the list goes on: Williams & Connolly partner Gregory Craig and McGuireWoods partner Mark Brzezinski are advisers to the Obama campaign. The McCain camp has help from Gibson Dunn partners Theodore Olson and Miguel Estrada and Winston & Strawn Chairman Dan Webb and partner Richard Williamson. Both candidates looked to Biglaw for help finding vice presidential candidates. Obama turned to Covington & Burling partner Eric Holder Jr., while O'Melveny & Myers Chairman Arthur Culvahouse Jr. advised McCain.
Firms are careful to point out, though, that their lawyers recuse themselves from most firm matters when they enter the government to avoid any appearance of favoritism. As such, Latham's Bernthal says having contacts within an administration "is not really about currying favor with old friends." Still, he says there can be an upside to being familiar with those inside the administration when petitioning the government. "Knowing how a person thinks, I think, helps you present arguments in the most coherent and effective way."
Plus, says Sidley's Washington managing partner Phillips, "The few areas where somebody doesn't recuse themselves, it might make it easier to get someone to answer your phone calls."