Big Law is a scourge of modern politics we don’t often hear about—-the collection of 200 or so giant law firms, populated with hundreds of partners, that jostle for prominence in Washington and the nation. Firms like Kirkland & Ellis and Jones Day have become a way station between government and business where partners can advocate for corporate clients while awaiting appointment to Executive Branch offices. Once inside government, they push to collaborate with corporate power rather than offer resistance. In many cases they oversee the same industries they once worked for. We elect politicians and then we get corporate-approved policies churned out by Big Law; it’s a kind of policy deep state. Big Law provides the oil that makes the revolving door spin.
This cozy relationship knows no one party; Covington & Burling famously held open a corner office for Eric Holder while he negotiated settlements with many of their banking clients. But the Trump administration has taken merging with Big Law to new heights. A new report from Public Citizen, provided first to The Nation, “Big Law, Big Conflicts,” identifies 76 different lawyers working or nominated to work at cabinet agencies or inside the White House who either worked for Big Law firms or directly in the legal departments of corporations. These lawyers, seeded across the government, “either previously represented companies with business before the government, or worked in the same field they now oversee,” writes report author Alan Zibel.
The big winners are two of the largest Big Law firms: Jones Day has 12 alumni in the Trump administration, and Kirkland & Ellis has 11. The nominated leader and top deputy of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division come from Jones Day, as do Solicitor General Noel Francisco and White House Counsel Don McGahn. Kirkland & Ellis alums include Justice Department criminal-division nominee Brian Benczkowski, DOJ environment and natural-resources nominee Jeffrey Clark, Labor Department counsel Kate O’Scannlain, and Transportation Department Deputy Secretary Jeffrey Rosen.
It’s one thing that these figures worked in Big Law before joining the Trump administration. But in many cases we know what they did for corporate clients prior to government work. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, for example, worked for the tobacco industry, arguing against government advocacy against smoking on public-health grounds. The civil-rights-division attorney, Eric Dreiband, represented companies accused of discrimination, from CVS Pharmacy to Abercrombie and Fitch.
Brian Benczkowski will shift from defending companies accused of white-collar crime to running the criminal division at the DOJ. John Demers, assistant attorney general for the national-security division, was general counsel at Boeing. Even the head of the FBI, Christopher Wray, came out of Big Law stalwart King & Spalding. That firm counts as a client medical company MiMedx; the FBI recently raided a short seller’s house for sending a threatening tweet about MiMedx’s CEO.