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Justice Taps Antitrust Trial Lawyers After Pledging Court Action

July 26, 2022, 9:30 AM

The Justice Department is ramping up its hiring of antitrust trial lawyers as the Biden administration moves to deliver on its promise to take alleged competition violators to court.

The antitrust division is filling “many vacancies” in San Francisco, Washington, New York and Chicago, according to a federal jobs site. It seeks “experienced first-chair and second-chair trial lawyers to take leadership roles on high-profile antitrust and competition cases,” the USAJOBS.gov post says.

The division has already tapped two plaintiffs’ attorneys with decades of experience in suing companies—Bonny Sweeney, an antitrust litigator of more than 20 years at Hausfeld in San Francisco and other firms, and trial lawyer Aaron Sheanin from Robins Kaplan.

“Because of the types of people they’re hiring, they may be planning more” actions, said Phil Korologos, co-leader of Boies Schiller Flexner’s antitrust and competition practice.

The antitrust division is poised to file a lawsuit against Alphabet Inc.‘s Google in coming weeks over the search engine’s dominance in the online advertising market, Bloomberg News reported July 14, citing two people familiar with the matter.

Jonathan Kanter, the antitrust chief, has said he prefers lawsuits to block troublesome mergers rather than settlements that let deals proceed. His team is “turning the page on a failed experiment,” referring to past laissez-faire merger policy, he told Bloomberg News earlier this year.

Sweeney and Sheanin declined to respond to requests for comment about their hires. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the hiring effort.

Catching Up

The Biden administration is playing “catch-up” in hiring for key Justice posts after a slow start in filling the roles, Korologos said.

The antitrust division is offering to pay senior litigation counsel between $145,831 and $176,300 annually, according to the federal jobs site.

“The attorneys hired can expect to be given significant substantive and leadership responsibility and have immediate involvement with antitrust matters of national importance,” the jobs post said.

Sweeney and Sheanin in their new roles are part of a litigation unit Kanter formed within the division.

“We are more committed than ever to litigating when we believe a violation has taken place,” Kanter said in a speech three months ago. He renewed that commitment at a conference July 12, saying, “We have to bring cases to court.”

While it’s unlikely that Justice or other competition enforcers in the administration will soon unleash a blitz of cases, they likely will bring a small number of large suits that could take years to see through, said Chris Sagers, a law professor at Cleveland State University.

The agencies are likely to tap Big Law stars as “special agents” to lead “big trials,” Sagers said.

The Justice Department under President Obama hired Renata Hesse, then with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, when the agency was preparing to challenge the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, he noted.

The Justice Department under President Clinton brought on attorney David Boies, who is best known for plaintiffs’ work, to lead the successful monopolization prosecution against Microsoft Corp. in the late 1990s.

Sweeney

Sweeney left her partnership at Hausfeld July 15 for a Justice role she hasn’t yet started, firm partners Megan Jones and Scott Martin said July 22.

Sweeney has led private plaintiffs’ side antitrust suits for more than a quarter-century, including for Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, before moving to Hausfeld.

In 2014, she was on the lead plaintiffs’ trial team against Apple over alleged anti-competitive behaviors involving older versions of the company’s iPod music devices.

More recently, Sweeney served as co-lead class counsel in In re Google Play Store Antitrust Litigation, a monopolization case against Google over alleged unlawful practices related to the Google Play Store.

On July 1, Hausfeld announced the approval of a proposed $90 million settlement with Google in the case.

“Bonny is a force in litigation,” Hausfeld’s Jones said in a statement. “She has decades of private enforcement experience, doing the hard work of developing a case for filing to litigating a case to a jury.”

Sheanin

Sheanin said on LinkedIn he began his job as a Justice trial attorney in June. “It’s an incredible honor to be able to enforce the antitrust laws and promote fair competition,” he said in a post.

Sheanin, who like Sweeney is based in northern California, also has more than a decade of experience as a top antitrust lawyer.

That includes work as co-lead counsel in In re Wells Fargo Collateral Protection Insurance Litigation, a class action on behalf of more than two million automobile loan borrowers on whose accounts Wells Fargo & Co. and an insurance company forced unneeded auto insurance on borrowers.

While Justice’s move to bring on high-profile litigators is noteworthy, it remains to be seen whether it results in more aggressive antitrust enforcement, Rutgers Law School professor Michael Carrier said.

“These cases take a long time to get going,” he said. “The assumption certainly is that this administration would be more aggressive than the previous one.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com