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Summary List Placement
If hiring a partner from another law firm is risky, hiring a lawyer working in the government is an even bigger risk: unlike an established partner with a Rolodex of clients and millions of dollars in business, a government hire is an unknown quantity who has to spend months reconnecting with old clients or building a book of business from scratch.
That doesn’t stop top law firms from trying to lure government lawyers into private practice, especially if they are well-regarded and handled important matters during their time in public service. But the appetite among the top 200 US law firms to bring on government lawyers as partners fell in 2020: there were 78 such hires through December 28, compared with 125 in all of 2019, according to the legal-data provider Firm Prospects.
The decline this year is in line with overall hiring trends: overall partner moves between law firms are down 27% from last year, according to Leopard Solutions, while associate moves are down 35%.
Many firms rehire lawyers after a stint of government work, like Bernard Nigro, who rejoined Fried Frank in October after working in the DOJ as the principal deputy assistant attorney general; Kelly Cleary, a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services who rejoined Akin Gump in April; and Steve Peikin, who went back to Sullivan & Cromwell in September after working as co-director of enforcement at the SEC.
While there’s a learning curve for all new law firm partners — it often takes bout three months for lawyers to start producing revenue — it can be even more challenging for government hires, many of whom join a firm with some industry connections but no formal client relationships.
Current government lawyers are also having a hard time landing a job in the private sector than lawyers associated with previous presidential administrations, Notes Andrew Regan, a recruiter at Empire Search Partners. He said in an email that fewer people have moved back through the revolving door because law firms are wearier about hiring people associated with President Trump. He said most of the high-profile moves during the last few years have been lawyers who were at odds with the Trump administration.
Despite the barriers, some government lawyers still found opportunities to transition to a new law firm. This list doesn’t include partners who went back to their old firms, of which there were many, or moves to non-partnership roles. Here are 11 government hires that turned heads in 2020, based on name recognition, involvement in important matters, and conversations with six recruiters.
Geoffrey Berman, Fried Frank
Berman led the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York from 2018 until June 2020, when he resigned after a public dispute with Attorney General William Barr. Berman, who had been a partner at Greenberg Traurig before he was named an interim US attorney in 2018, oversaw a slew of high-profile investigations and prosecutions, including Congressman Chris Collins, who pled guilty to insider trading and was recently pardoned by President Donald Trump, and Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, associates of Rudy Giuliani charged with campaign-finance crimes.
Berman was named in early December as the next leader of Fried Frank’s white-collar practice. Audrey Strauss, his second-in-command at the Southern District who took the reins of the office upon his departure, is a former Fried Frank partner, and Berman was reportedly close with Steven Wirzel, another partner at the firm.
Jessie K. Liu, Skadden
Liu joined the Trump administration in 2017 as the deputy general counsel of the Treasury and served from late 2017 to February 2020 as the US Attorney for the District of Columbia. A partner at Morrison & Foerster before government, Liu was under consideration for an undersecretary role at the Treasury in 2017, but her nomination was reportedly scuttled over her role in prosecutions of the president’s allies.
In September, Liu joined Skadden’s Washington office, where she said she’s been building a “three-pronged practice” around corporate white-collar defense, investigations and compliance advice; complex civil litigation, often with a government angle; and crisis management. She wouldn’t mention specific cases, but she told Insider that “government-facing civil litigation has actually been the busiest” component of her practice since joining Skadden.
Other big hires in Skadden’s Washington office in 2020 include Jeffrey Gerrish, who had been a partner at Skadden before taking a senior role with the US Trade Representative’s office, where he worked on the negotiation of trade agreements with China, Japan, Mexico, and Canada.
Beau Buffier, Wilson Sonsini
An antitrust leader in both private practice and the public sector, Buffier joined Wilson Sonsini in November from the Biden campaign after several years atop the antitrust bureau of the New York Attorney General’s office, which he joined in 2016. Before that, he had been a leader of Shearman & Sterling’s antitrust practice.
Just weeks after his arrival at Wilson Sonsini was announced, Buffier filed an appearance on behalf of Plaid, the financial data company, in a lawsuit the Justice Department filed to prevent Visa from moving forward with its planned $5 billion acquisition of Plaid. Several other Wilson Sonsini lawyers are representing Google in its defense of a major antitrust case filed by the Justice Department.
James McDonald, Sullivan & Cromwell
In October, McDonald stepped down from his post as CFTC enforcement director, a position he had held since 2017. While at the commission, he focused on spoofing cases against banks and former traders. His work resulted in a record-setting $920 million settlement with JPMorgan for its role in manipulating the market while trading precious metals and Treasury securities.
McDonald is set to join Sullivan & Cromwell’s securities and commodities investigations and enforcement practice in early January. A first-time partner, he was also a litigation associate at elite DC firm Williams & Connolly and an assistant US attorney for the Southern District of New York before joining the CFTC.
Legal recruiter Steve Nelson said law firm hires from the CFTC, especially for top positions, are always big deals, and Avery Ellis, managing director of recruiting firm Mestel & Company, said McDonald’s move was a “terrific leap.”
Rod Rosenstein, King & Spalding
Rosenstein needs no introduction. While the Attorney General is normally the public face of the Justice Department, Rosenstein, as the DOJ’s second-in-command, shot to prominence early on, writing the memo that justified the firing of FBI Director James Comey and appointing Robert Mueller to investigate ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. A longtime prosecutor, Rosenstein left the DOJ in mid-2019 and officially joined King & Spalding in January 2020.
Since joining K&S’s special matters and government investigations practice, Rosenstein has kept a low profile. He represents spyware company NSO Group in a case brought by WhatsApp that accuses the Israeli hacking company of deploying malware against WhatsApp users, and a K&S spokeswoman said he has been defending against federal investigations. His bio on the law firm’s website says he does a wide variety of work, from crisis management to tax disputes.
His time in the private sector hasn’t been without controversy. Rosenstein and his firm became a target of protest after the New York Times reported that he ordered others at the DOJ to prosecute immigrant parents regardless of the age of their children, part of the Trump administration’s family-separation policy.
Elizabeth Prelogar, Cooley
An appellate star who served back-to-back clerkships with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, Elizabeth Prelogar joined Cooley in January after working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller and for the Solicitor General, who represents the government in the Supreme Court. Another Mueller lawyer, Andrew Goldstein, joined Cooley in 2019. Prelogar had been with the Department of Justice since 2014.
Since joining Cooley, Prelogar, who worked at Hogan Lovells before her time in government, has worked on a mix of business litigation and cases that could have big public policy impacts. She has been representing transgender student-athletes in a challenge to an Idaho law that banned them from sports and federal death-row inmates who sued the Justice Department over a surge in executions scheduled to take place until shortly before Joe Biden, who opposes the death penalty, is sworn in as president.
Businesses she has represented include Turo, a car-sharing company, in a case brought by Massachusetts regulators that has been appealed to the state’s highest court, and Uber, which is trying to defeat an appeal lodged by taxi companies that sued Uber and lost at the lower-court level.
Prelogar told Insider Cooley has been focused on growing its white-collar and investigative capabilities on the East Coast, adding that she has been focused on growing its appellate and Supreme Court practice, including with the addition of several associates in 2020.
Kelly Ann Shaw, Hogan Lovells
Shaw held a variety of positions in the White House related to international trade and economics before joining Hogan Lovells earlier this year. In her time as deputy assistant to the president for international economic affairs and deputy director of the National Economic Council, she worked on the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the China Phase One agreement. She was also the US’s “sherpa,” or lead negotiator, at the G7 and G20 forums.
Before her time in the White House, she was counsel to the influential tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee and worked for the US Trade Representative. At Hogan Lovells, she works on both international trade and government relations matters. She said in an email that US-China tensions have impacted business decisions “in nearly every sector,” and said she has been able to tap her experience to help clients who have been “thirsty for information about the inner workings of US and global governments.”
She is also a senior advisor at CSIS, a bipartisan think-tank, and she teaches a course on the history of US trade policy at Columbia Law School.
John Kucera and Lauren Bell, Boies Schiller
Kucera, a longtime prosecutor in Los Angeles, joined Boies Schiller after several years working on high-profile cases like the US government’s case against Backpage for alleged facilitation of sex trafficking. He played a major role in one of the top international fraud cases of the decade, related to the theft of billions of dollars from the Malaysian government investment fund 1MDB.
Kucera’s signature is on several complaints and other filings across more than a dozen lawsuits through which the Justice Department ultimately obtained more than $1 billion from Jho Low, his family members and affiliated companies.
Joining Boies Schiller around the same time was Lauren Bell, who has been acting chief of staff for the department’s criminal division. During her time at the DOJ, she managed oversight of all 16 criminal divisions, handled press and policy issues, and supervised responses to congressional inquiries. Bell has also been senior counsel the criminal division’s assistant attorney general; a trial attorney for the DOJ’s public integrity section; and an assistant US attorney of the Northeast District of Ohio.
Kucera and Bell joined Boies Schiller as global investigations and white-collar defense partners, and their hire comes on the heels of another DOJ hire, Jesse Panuccio, who was brought on in 2019, and amid the departures of dozens of other of partners this year, including Nicholas Gravante, who had been named one of the firm’s new managing partners just a year before, and other leading lawyers, like David Willingham, Karen Dunn, and Bill Isaacson.
Nasim Fussell, Holland & Knight
As the former chief international trade counsel for the Senate Finance Committee, Fussell worked closely with Senator Chuck Grassley and the Trump administration on USMCA, the US-Japan Trade Agreement, and the China Phase One agreement.
She’s also worked at the House Ways and Means Committee and the Department of Commerce, and outside of government positions, she’s worked at tech company Pitney Bowes and General Motors.
Fussell joined Holland & Knight in September as a partner in the firm’s international trade group.
Uzo Asonye, Davis Polk
Asonye, who had been a senior financial crimes and corruption prosecutor at the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, joined Davis Polk in mid-November. He worked at O’Melveny & Myers before joining government in 2010 and prosecuted a number of local and federal officials for corruption offenses. He also worked on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and on one of two successful prosecutions of Paul Manafort, who managed the Trump campaign and was pardoned earlier this month.
Since moving to Davis Polk, where he is a partner in the white-collar defense and investigations group, Asonye said he has worked on Congressional investigations and has advised clients on a variety of other issues, including some related to the pandemic. He said the industry focus has been “all over the map, from financial to tech,” adding that he has been meeting firm clients and speaking to them about Davis Polk’s trial capabilities.