Firms Seek ‘Shiniest New Penny’ as Revolving Door Spins for Obama Lawyers

By Susan Beck,

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s hiring of Stuart Delery in September was a recruitment coup for the firm and marked one of Washington’s most worn, and criticized, paths: the route through the revolving door between federal service and private practice.

Delery, one of then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.’s first front-office picks, rose to third-in-command at the U.S. Justice Department as acting associate attorney general. He joined Main Justice from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, one of a group of lawyers there who jumped into the Obama administration during its early days.

“A change of administration offers a great opportunity for law firms like ours, where we want to have the shiniest new penny,” says F. Joseph Warin, who helped recruit Delery and who co-chairs Gibson Dunn’s white-collar defense and investigations practice group. “We want people who have been in the room where key decisions are made, so we can offer our clients these perspectives and that level of advocacy.”

As the Obama administration winds down, dozens of other top government lawyers—including many from the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission—are being courted and are transitioning into private practice. It’s often a challenging exercise for the lawyers who make these moves—and who might take more than a year to develop business, for instance—as well as for the firms that vie to make a key hire.

Gibson Dunn competed with several firms for the 47-year-old Delery, including his former firm, Wilmer. “This is a homegrown Wilmer partner,” Warin says about Delery. “Howard Shapiro at Wilmer is a friend of mine,” Warin adds, naming the chair of Wilmer’s litigation group. “He called me and said, ‘You owe me a dinner.’”

Shapiro confirms that he gave Warin a congratulatory call, but maintains that Wilmer hasn’t lost its recruiting edge. “We have been and will continue to be extremely successful recruiting senior people out of government,” Shapiro says. “It’s one of the great strengths of our firm.” (Delery declined to comment.)

Shapiro rattles off the names of several top officials who have joined Wilmer in recent years: Hillary Clinton’s transition chairman, Kenneth Salazar, the former Interior Department secretary, who joined the firm in 2013; Robert Mueller III, who spent more than a decade as the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and who returned to the firm in 2014; Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, whom Wilmer rehired last year.

In recent weeks, Wilmer added to this list by announcing that it had recruited Alejandro Mayorkas, the No. 2 official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a former U.S. attorney for the Central District of California.

“I’m confident we will continue to do well recruiting out of the government,” Shapiro says.

But, he adds, “There’s a lot of competition.”

‘Not An Absolute Science’

Lawyers who are leaving any administration must convince a law firm that the attorney will be productive and a boost to the bottom line. That’s true now more than ever.

“Law firms are much savvier about which government lawyers they’re interested in,” says Jeffrey Lowe, managing partner of the Washington, D.C., office of the recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa. “Twenty years ago, it was good enough to have a fancy-sounding title [to] get a job. Not anymore.”

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