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Is Jones Day the Most Evil Law Firm on the Planet?

Oct. 14, 2022, 12:34 PM

David Enrich insists that he’s not out to get Jones Day with his new book, “Servants of the Damned.” But who is he fooling?

“I wouldn’t use ‘evil’ to describe a big organization like Jones Day,” he told me when I asked if he’s making the case that the 2,400-lawyer shop is the most reprehensible firm on earth.

“I picked them because I regard them as emblematic of the transformation of the legal industry,” he said, citing how firms have turned into hypercompetitive, money-obsessed machines. “It’s representative of how the profession has lost its way.”

Methinks Enrich is being much too coy.

For anyone who’s ever wondered if Jones Day is the Galactic Empire or its managing partner Steve Brogan the Darth Vader of Big Law, the book provides fodder if not confirmation.

While almost all firms have clients that might be considered pariahs, Jones Day seems to attract them like a magnet. It’s almost a Who’s Who of liberal foes. Among its representations are Big Tobacco (R.J. Reynolds), opioid makers and dispensers (Purdue Pharma and Walmart pharmacies), gun manufacturers (Smith & Wesson), and the mighty gun lobby (National Rifle Association).

Though Enrich devotes several chapters to the firm’s morally questionable, scorched-earth approach in defending those clients, I wasn’t that stirred by those sections. (Is that because those of us in the legal world are inured to such tactics?)

Much more compelling is how Enrich lays out in excruciating detail how the firm jumped on the Trump bandwagon, seized control, and steered the nation rightward—and how we are all living with the consequences.

The most enduring result is the composition of the current Supreme Court—and that’s the handiwork of partner Don McGahn, later Trump’s White House counsel. It was McGahn who organized a pivotal meeting with Trump and leading conservatives, including the Federalist Society’s Leo Leonard, at Jones Day in March 2016, making Trump a viable presidential choice.

At the meeting, Trump vowed to abide by a preapproved list of nominees to fill Supreme Court vacancies, earning him Mitch McConnell’s critical support. Later, McGahn would play key roles in pushing through the nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Enrich also makes a strong case that Jones Day, under Brogan’s stewardship, not only advocated for Trump as a client but is also aligned philosophically with hardcore conservatism. One stunner is that the firm offered pro bono services to Catholic groups that wanted to challenge the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.

The firm ended up filing 12 lawsuits for 43 Catholic entities. “It’s a firmwide commitment,” Enrich quotes a Jones Day partner as saying. “The leadership came from Steve Brogan, who is a trustee of Notre Dame. He feels quite strongly about the issue, as does Jones Day.”

‘Special Payments’

Which brings us to the silent star of the book: Brogan. He’s everywhere yet conspicuously missing. Though Enrich interviewed virtually all the key players, including McGahn and prominent former Jones Day partners Ben Ginsberg and Don Ayer, Brogan’s voice is silent.

“From the beginning, I tried to talk with Brogan,” Enrich said. “I sent him seven emails and called him but he ignored me. It’s frustrating. I don’t get it.”

Indeed, Brogan is portrayed as the invisible hand that controls everything in the firm. What comes through is that he was very vested in the Trump administration. To reward lawyers who joined Team Trump, Brogan designated “special payments” as send-offs, Enrich writes.

Beneficiaries include partner Greg Katsas, who became deputy White House counsel (his departure package amounted to $4 million), partner Noel Francisco, who became the US solicitor general ($4.6 million), and sixth-year associate James Burnham, who joined the Department of Justice ($810,000, doubling his then-salary).

For any associate to receive $810,000 in compensation—and on his way out the door at that—is bonkers. But that episode points to how much power Brogan had in running the firm and how much he wanted to incentivize Jones Day lawyers to join the Trump administration. And Brogan was also generous to those who came back, giving McGahn a seven-figure raise when he returned in 2018.

Some Jones Day lawyers say the book is riddled with inaccuracies.

Calling the book a “tabloid version of a story that would fit well with other bits of yellow journalism,” retired Jones Day partner Joe Sims told me that Brogan’s portrayal is distorted.

“I have known and worked closely with Steve for 40 years, and I cannot tell you what his politics are because he simply does not express political positions. The notion that he would even consider making a firm decision based on some political agenda is absurd, and anyone who actually knows and works with Steve would know this.”

As for the firm’s official reaction, its spokesperson pointed me to a Wall Street Journal op-ed from Kevyn Orr, the partner-in-charge of its US offices. “Mr. Enrich’s thesis that Jones Day is a ‘right wing’ institution mischaracterizes the firm,” Orr writes. “The firm represents clients, not causes; it has no political agenda,” adding that its lawyers “span the political spectrum,” and that he himself is a Democrat.

Orr comes off as the token liberal that the firm trots out whenever it needs to show how Jones Day is just one happy family.

Except it’s not. Orr’s op-ed didn’t dispute or address the uproar over the firm’s advocacy for Trumpian causes. In one vivid scene, Enrich describes how upset a young partner—one of its prized Supreme Court clerk hires—was about the firm’s role in challenging the vote count in Pennsylvania in the 2020 presidential election.

“This lawsuit was brought for no other reason than to deprive poor people of the right to vote,” Sparkle Sooknanan said at a firm meeting. She later left the firm, as did conservative stalwarts Ben Ginsberg and Don Ayer, and others.

Nor is Orr denying that he himself chafed at the firm’s representation of Trump. “Orr told other lawyers that he feared that Jones Day was debasing itself through its close ties to an administration that had little interest in the rule of law,” Enrich writes. “Orr loved Jones Day, and he admired Brogan, and he worried that the stain on the firm’s reputation could be dark and indelible.”

So will this book deepen the stain? Will recruits run for the hills? And will socially conscious clients dump the firm?

More liberal recruits might think twice about joining the firm, though Supreme Court clerks might still find it hard to turn down the $400,000-plus sign-up bonus.

Ironically, though, all this negative attention might be a boon for Jones Day.

“Their calling card is, ‘We’ll stick with you even if you’re a polarizing, toxic client,” Enrich said. “They wear it as a badge of honor. It could be used at a marketing event.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com. Twitter: @ViviaChen

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Alison Lake at alake@bloombergindustry.com