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Obama Lawyers Join Big Law Firms

Feb. 7, 2017, 8:29 PM

Lawyers from the Obama administration are finding new jobs at corporate law firms.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles-founded O’Melveny & Myers announced the latest catch in a series of revolving door Obama exits: Stevan Bunnell, outgoing general counsel of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, will be rejoining the law firm in Washington, D.C.

“I will, in part, return to a traditional white collar practice, which is a combination of government enforcement issues,” Bunnell told Big Law Business. “I will be coupling that with a cybersecurity practice, building on three years and change at the Department of Homeland Security.”

The words echoed a resounding chorus of government-turned-private sector lawyers who are now marketing their newly formed practices. Over the past several weeks as President Donald Trump has settled into office, government lawyers appointed to top positions by former President Barack Obama have been finding homes at the law firms where they previously toiled as partners.

Some of the prominent placements from the government have included John P. Carlin, the former assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Security Division, landing at Morrison & Foerster; Beth S. Brinkman, the former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Division, joining Covington & Burling; and Jeh Johnson, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, rejoining Paul, Weiss, Rifkand, Wharton & Garrison.

Yet even several weeks into Trump’s presidency, many lawyers are still in transit.

These lawyers include former Debevoise & Plimpton partner Mary Jo White, who is the outgoing chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, former Morgan Lewis & Bockius partner Leslie Caldwell, who is the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and former deputy attorney general Sally Yates, who spent nearly her entire law career in government practice before being fired by Trump for refusing to defend his immigration order.

Other lawyers in transition include Loretta Lynch, the outgoing U.S. attorney general who was a partner at Hogan & Hartson (the firm that merged to become Hogan Lovells) between 2001 and 2010; and former Arnold & Porter partner William J. Baer, the departing assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.

The frenzy started after the election in November, when government lawyers across an array of agencies including the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security and Defense Department, learned that they would need to find another job.

“You saw this huge flood of people looking to go into private practice; they had assumed they would have some position in the Clinton Administration,” recalled Jeffrey Lowe, a headhunter at Major Lindsey & Africa, who specializes helping government attorneys find a job at a corporate law firm.

Lowe said that seeing top level lawyers in the Obama administration seek a transition back to Big Law was not surprising and the so-called revolving door is regularly active, even during the course of the same administration. What was different about November, though, was that top lawyers who had been entrenched in government workplace for the past eight years all of a sudden and urgently needed to find another job, and in a saturated market where others were looking, too.

“For a lot of them, it’s been a challenge,” he said. “Some who are at the very top can afford to not look at all until they formally step down. They know they are going to find something good; it’s just a question of what. But there are others slightly down the food chain, and they don’t have the luxury of living with that uncertainty and they started the [search] process in the summer and early fall and were well on their way before the election even occurred.”

For some highly-sought after lawyers, salaries can range from $1 million to $3 million a year and even beyond, said Lowe. But since the government lawyers are joining law firms without a book of business, firm leaders go through a vetting process to make sure that the incoming partner makes good business sense and often draw up a formal business plan that includes prospective clients that the lawyer will target and contacts he or she can leverage. On the other hand, some law firms have ongoing matters — litigation and investigations — that the government attorney can immediately work on upon joining the law firm.

“Some firms aren’t as concerned about business development as they are about having deep experience with that agency,” said Lowe. “Some elite firms are able to make investments because of their experience that other firms aren’t.”

Outside of the Obama administration revolving door, it’s already a busy time for law firm hiring, as many firms enter a new fiscal year, clearing their books on either Dec. 31 or Jan. 31. During this time, firms generally onboard lawyers to factor in the expense of salary, overhead and headhunter fee, and an estimated 90-day cost of ramping up their practice, in the new year, said California recruiter Larry Watanabe.

Law firm partners also decide to switch firms around this time of year because they will have received their year-end compensation, even if they’re forced to leave a little on the table, said Watanabe.

“When I started doing this a long time ago, most law firms paid out partners in full at the end of the year, and at the latest, the end of January,” said Watanabe. “Now, firms are dragging out payments into March and June, purposefully, so that it makes it difficult for a partner to leave without leaving money on the table.”

Of course government lawyers don’t need to worry about that as much; at least not until they’ve joined or rejoined Big Law. As for Bunnell, the former general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security who joined O’Melveny, he doesn’t plan on starting work until March to take some down time.

“I’m trying to decompress,” he said.

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