Incoming White House counsel Pat Cipollone is a commercial litigator with Washington ties who is not altogether unfamiliar with headstrong clients.
His resume at D.C. firm Stein Mitchell Cipollone Beato & Missner lists his background as including trade regulation and health care fraud cases as well as commercial litigation.
It all seems pretty bread-and-butter elite law firm fare, but it turns out that recently he was also part of a legal team that represented actor Johnny Depp.
The “Pirates of the Caribbean” star challenged a prominent Hollywood lawyer in a highly contentious malpractice lawsuit involving $30 million in disputed legal fees—and in August, won a ruling paving the way for a courtroom showdown next spring in Depp’s effort to reclaim the cash.
“Pat has experience handling complex, contentious matters,” noted Thomas D. Yannucci, a litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis, who worked with him when he was a partner there for more than a decade.
He decamped to Stein Mitchell six years ago, and his experience in a legal maelstrom is likely to put Cipollone in good stead when he takes up his new job.
He follows Don McGahn, an elections law expert and former Jones Day attorney whose last day as White House counsel was Oct. 17.
While McGahn’s tenure had its stormy moments, his successor may be facing an even more fraught period if Democrats gain control of the House.
They would be armed with subpoena power to launch investigations into high-voltage areas like the Trump campaign and Russia, the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause over foreign payments or gifts, or the president’s personal taxes.
“This is likely to be one of the most difficult periods in the White House counsel’s office,” predicted Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor. “If there were a combat pay option in the White House, this would be the job that deserves it.”
Cipollone will come to the post with only brief government service in George H.W. Bush’s Justice Department, but backers say his broad commercial litigation background equips him for the White House limelight.
He was a partner at Kirkland’s Washington office, where he worked for an array of major clients, including Bechtel Corp., and long-time Kirkland clients such as German conglomerate Siemens AG.
Cipollone also worked on class action lawsuits involving General Motors and other major industrial names, according to firm information.
Neither Cipollone nor Stein Mitchell returned calls.
Cipollone also did a stint, before he became a Kirkland partner, as a legal officer for the Knights of Columbus, a 1.9 million Catholic fraternal organization that is also a Fortune 1000 insurance company, where he handled a variety of regulatory and other issues.
After he left Kirkland, he became a name partner at Stein Mitchell and broadened his legal repertoire to include plaintiffs’ representation.
He also helped cement his standing with Trump by working since last spring as outside counsel advising the president’s legal team handling Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
He worked alongside Rudy Giuliani and Jay Sekulow, the president’s personal lawyers.
Cipollone, a Fordham graduate who earned his J.D. at the University of Chicago, also serves on the board of directors for the Catholic Information Center in Washington and on the board of Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law.
Yannucci, who recruited Cipollone to Kirkland in 1993 as an associate, emphasized his abilities as a “nuanced advocate” who can “cover a wide range of issues.”
“If he can’t come to a compromise, he will litigate, if he must,” Yannucci added.
That is not to say that his job will be easy, said Turley.
“The White House Counsel protects the interests of the Office of the President, and sometimes those interests can conflict with the interests of the president. A litigation background may come in handy.”
Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, predicted that the White House job will be a challenge because of the conflicts between protecting the Office of the President and the demands of its occupant.
“When the subpoenas start flying, Cipollone will have less wiggle room than a criminal defense lawyer who can defend his client with little chance he will later be busted for violating the law,” said Painter, who is a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.
“But if the next White House counsel is aware of anything illegal, he would have to report it to the Justice Department – or be in serious trouble.”
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