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Tony West: From Student Body President to PepsiCo General Counsel

March 31, 2017, 4:00 AM

Tony West

Executive vice president, government affairs, general counsel, corporate secretary of PepsiCo Inc.

Tony West is executive vice president of government affairs, general counsel and corporate secretary at PepsiCo Inc. Previously, West worked for the Obama administration in the Department of Justice, first as assistant attorney general in charge of the civil division, then as associate attorney general. He also spent the better part of a decade as a Morrison & Foerster partner. Before that, West helped raise money and campaign for Democratic politicians. Below is his story, as he tells it.


Bellarmine College Preparatory, San José, California, graduated 1983

West was born in San Francisco and grew up in Northern California.

At Bellarmine, a private, Jesuit all-boys high school, West served as freshman class president, student body president and excelled at debate and graduated at the top of his class. The school emphasized the value of public service, West said.

“That idea was really ingrained in all of us — this idea that you should be of value during your time on this earth in ways that exceed your own parochial interests or concerns,” he said. “This really helped my own world view as I began to form it — as you really do — in these formative years in high school.”

Harvard University, graduated 1987

West majored in government, and in his junior year, he helped raise money to revive the Harvard Political Review, a non-partisan magazine that covers politics, campus life and culture, of which he would become publisher.

“It deepened my political sensibilities,” he said. “It was my opportunity to begin to try to work with people who had different political points of view and to build a consensus.”

On campus, he heard then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis talk. He was so impressed that he postponed a full scholarship to attend the London School of Economics in order to work full-time on Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign. His father, born to sharecroppers, and his mother, also reared in the segregated South, were dismayed that he was deferring his education.

“I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand. He needs good people working for him. He has a good heart,’” West recalled telling his parents.

Stanford Law School, graduated 1992

He didn’t want to be a lawyer, but said he needed a skill he could market in case Plan A didn’t pan out.

“I wanted to be in public service,” West said. “I wanted to run for office, but I also knew that’s a high-risk strategy. You may run and you may lose, in which case you need to figure out what to do.”

West served as president of the Stanford Law Review and said he learned how to manage people. He also met his future wife, Maya Harris, an attorney who became a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and who is also the sister of California’s junior U.S. Senator Kamala Harris.

Work Experience

Chief of staff to treasurer, Michael Dukakis presidential campaign, 1987-1988

West worked directly with Bob Farmer, Dukakis’ campaign treasurer to raise more than $20 million — the most any Democratic candidate had ever raised to that point, he said. Still, Dukakis lost the election to Republican George H.W. Bush.

Finance director, Democratic Governors Association 1988-1989

Then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton contacted West and asked if he wanted to work for the Democratic Governors Association. Instead of attending the London School of Economics, West spent nine months crisscrossing the country with Clinton, raising money for the DGA, courting donors and creating a club for prominent donors.

“When I did it with Bill Clinton … I would say, ‘This guy is going to be the next Democratic nominee, he’s going to be the next president of the United States. Do you want to get in early?’ And it worked,” West recalled.

West was accepted into Stanford Law School by this time and returned to school.

Special assistant to Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann, US DOJ, 1993-1994

West remembers Attorney General Janet Reno saying that the best training she ever received and that her happiest days as a lawyer were when she was a prosecutor. He took her advice and found work as a federal prosecutor in Northern California.

Assistant U.S. Attorney, N. District of Calif., 1994–1999

West prosecuted more than a dozen defendants who created and distributed child pornography. Among the victims was a 10-year-old girl who was molested live online. This required speaking with traumatized children and listening to parents who felt guilty about not protecting their children from predatory friends or family members.

“It really underscored for me how important those roles as a prosecutor can be, because you’re not there to simply win a case,” West said. “You’re trying to do justice in the most fulsome sense of the word.”

In 1998, West ran for public office for the very first time. He sought a seat on the San José City Council, but did not win.

Special Assistant, California Attorney General, 1999-2001

West worked on the state’s antitrust prosecution of Microsoft, which accused the giant tech company of using its dominant operating system to promote its internet browser, Internet Explorer, and block competition from other software and hardware manufacturers. The court found Microsoft was running a monopoly, and ordered it to split into two separate units.

West also unsuccessfully sought public office in 2000, this time losing a bid for a seat in the California State Assembly.

“Now my only plan is to be general counsel at PepsiCo,” West said.

Morrison & Foerster, partner 2001-2009

In 2001, he said he joined the private sector to ensure he could afford to help pay for his daughter’s education.

“I was apprehensive about going to a private law firm and I wasn’t sure what that experience would be like,” West said. “At the same time, I was not conflicted about my greatest desire, which was that my daughter not have to graduate from college with a boatload of debt.”

At Mofo, he worked with James Brosnahan to defend John Walker Lindh, who had left Marin County in his 20s, converted to Islam and assisted the Taliban before the U.S. backed the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

West said he did a lot of soul searching before joining the case, fearful it would spell the end of his public service career.

Lindh accepted a plea deal that sentenced him 20 years in federal prison without parole. He said representing Lindh tested his faith in the Constitution, in due process and in what it means to be a lawyer.

“I’ve had a few cases like that and so I count myself as very fortunate,” West said.

Assistant Attorney General, U.S. DOJ, Civil Division, 2009–2012

While at Mofo, he served as the co-chairman of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in California, which meant raising money and campaigning. Once in office, Obama appointed West to serve as assistant attorney general in charge of the civil division.

In that position, West had to decide whether the DOJ should continue defending the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that Clinton had signed that prevented same-sex married couples from securing federal marriage benefits. After vigorous internal debate, West said Holder and Obama agreed the law was unconstitutional. In February 2011, the DOJ stopped defending it.

“In many ways, the table was set for the government to be able to do what it did,” said West. “We were standing on the shoulders of a lot of people who had done a lot of work before us.”

Associate Attorney General, 2012-2014

West’s highlights as associate attorney general include negotiating a a $16.6 billion settlement with Bank of America and a $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase & Co. over the mortgage-lending crisis. He also helped secure the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

PepsiCo, e.v.p., government affairs, general counsel, corp. secretary, 2014-present

Larry D. Thompson, who served in the DOJ as deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush, recruited West to join PepsiCo and succeed him as general counsel.

Since taking the position, West said he has prioritized diversifying the legal profession: He hired or promoted 17 people — 10 are women and six are women of color. He also started a fellowship at the company that invites diverse 1L law students to spend a summer there. And West said he’s directing legal spend toward firms that are actively making an impact on diversifying their firms.

Lenore T. Adkins is a general assignment reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Big Law Business website. She reports on attorney movements from the federal government to the private sector and vice versa. She also covers major issues that impact the legal industry.

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