Move over, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Latham & Watkins has arrived.
In the first years of President Bush’s administration, legal appointments were under the influence of LA-based Gibson Dunn and its alumni, notably Ted Olson—the lead lawyer in Bush v. Gore, the case that put Bush in the White House. Olson became solicitor general. President Bush tried to put Miguel Estrada, an Olson protégé, on the US Court of Appeals. Protégés of both Olson and his close friend Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr were on the fast track to judgeships and high-ranking jobs in Cabinet agencies. Gibson Dunn had come to Washington in 1981 on the wings of client Ronald Reagan, whose attorney general William French Smith was a Gibson Dunn partner.
But influence once wielded by Gibson Dunn has shifted to rival Latham & Watkins and to ex-partner Michael Chertoff, the Senate GOP counsel in Bill Clinton’s impeachment and now Homeland Security chief.
After the debacle of naming Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, it was Chertoff who persuaded Bush to settle on Samuel Alito. Chertoff and Alito are good friends who served together both in the New Jersey US Attorney’s Office and on the same federal circuit court.
Chertoff’s influence hardly stops there. Alice Fisher, the chief of Justice’s criminal division, once worked for Chertoff. So did Noel Hillman, recently appointed to the federal bench. So did Julie Myers, the new head of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs office.
Another former Latham lawyer is Chris Cox, the new chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Legal Times found 11 former Chertoff associates in key administration posts. A connection to the Latham firm, Chertoff, or both is about the best thing a government-job seeker can have on a résumé.
Top lawyer and former Latham partner Beth Wilkinson, who knows Chertoff from both the firm and the Justice Department, was named general counsel of struggling home-mortgage giant Fannie Mae. Wilkinson’s strengths include her Latham connections and her professional friendship with Chertoff. At the Justice Department, she was also an expert in terrorism.
Wilkinson is more than occupied with her new job and raising a set of young twins with husband David Gregory, NBC’s prickly White House correspondent. Otherwise, insiders say, Chertoff’s successor at Homeland Security might have well made it two in a row for Latham. But if Wilkinson is off the Cabinet list for now, there is no shortage of other Latham partners—the firm has some 1,200 lawyers.