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30 of Washington DC's Best Lawyers
Washington is home to some of the world’s best lawyers. Here are the top 30—plus 750 who are right behind them. Save the list—you never know when you’ll be arrested, get served with a subpoena, need a new will, get a divorce, or worse. By Kim Eisler
Comments () | Published November 1, 2003

New Yorkers still complain that Washington isn’t hip enough, but when it comes to hiring lawyers, they can’t come here fast enough.

For decades, New Yorkers tended to look down at Washington law firms. But when indicted New York lawyer Mark Belnick needed a savior this year, he turned to Reid Weingarten, a partner at Washington’s Steptoe & Johnson.

Belnick is no legal novice. He had been a partner at New York’s Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, one of the nation’s toniest firms. Belnick was known in Washington for his role in the Iran-Contra inquiry as chief deputy to Senate counsel Arthur Liman.

Liman was a New Yorker who couldn’t help but show his disdain for the Washington legal mentality. Many believe that his New York orientation accounted for much of the confusion and ineffectiveness that plagued the Iran-Contra investigation.

Liman died in 1997, and Belnick eventually left Paul Weiss and became general counsel to one of his clients, Tyco International. When Tyco’s finances became the subject of a federal investigation, Belnick was indicted for allegedly taking millions of dollars from the company in undisclosed interest-free loans and bonuses.

His hiring of Washington’s Weingarten —who once worked for the Public Integrity Section at the Justice Department—paid off in mid-July when a jury acquitted Belnick on all counts.

Or take Dick Grasso, the former head of the New York Stock Exchange. Grasso counts dozens of the top attorneys in New York City as personal friends, but when he and the NYSE began knocking heads over his compensation, he bypassed the New York bar and hired Brendan Sullivan Jr., the ace litigator from DC’s Williams & Connolly.

Sullivan took the case despite already being involved in a six-month trial in Hartford, Connecticut—he’s defending Walter Forbes, the former CEO of Cendant Corporation, who is charged with insider trading and defrauding investors. That trial is still going on.

When former NBA basketball star Jayson Williams was accused of shooting his chauffeur, Washington’s William R. “Billy” Martin was called on to save the day. Williams was acquitted on the most serious charge against him, aggravated manslaughter.

These cases represent a sea change. A couple of decades ago, Washington defendants often sought representation by a well-known attorney from New York or Boston. When President Nixon got in trouble, he hired a string of attorneys from out of town—first Charles Alan Wright from Texas, then James St. Clair from Boston. Neither had much success.

President Clinton learned the lesson. When the impeachment team in the House of Representatives brought in an attorney from Chicago to prosecute him, Clinton stuck with David Kendall of Williams & Connolly.

Lawyering is Washington’s top industry, creating some $4 billion in gross revenues distributed among partners, associates, court reporters, paralegals, and messengers. Some 80,000 attorneys ply their trade in the Washington area, creating at least an equal number of jobs in support.

Among that number are some of the best lawyers not only in the country but in the world. Later in this article is a list of some 780 of the top lawyers in Washington in a variety of practice areas that readers might someday find useful. But before we get to that list, here are 30 Washington attorneys who have attained national and even world-class status in their fields.

1. Robert Barnett (Williams & Connolly). The heart of lawyering is the contract, and no one has mastered the art of the deal better than Bob Barnett. Our top lawyer for 2004 masterminded the literary negotiations for both Hillary and Bill Clinton, to say nothing of Bob Woodward. He has become the indispensable man, occupying a unique place in Washington. When a US senator like Louisiana’s John Breaux needs to transition into private life, he hires Barnett to make it happen. Barnett has positioned himself near virtually every seat of power, crossing party lines and professions. It wouldn’t be unthinkable to see a Barnett client writing a review of a Barnett client’s biography of another Barnett client. If Washington were ancient Rome, Barnett would be the smiling man in the toga, happily drinking ambrosia.

2. Reid H. Weingarten (Steptoe & Johnson). I’ts been a banner year for this former trial attorney for the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section. He’s won the acquittal of Mark Belnick, the Tyco hotshot accused of corporate fraud, and he still has the defense of ex-WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers to go. The Belnick acquittal, accomplished in a New York courtroom where lawyers from Washington are not supposed to venture, will earn Weingarten a place in every Wall Streeter’s Rolodex. Here in Washington, insiders have known for years that Weingarten is a star.

3. Kenneth Adams (Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky). The average profit for big-law-firm partners in Washington is around $800,000 a year. For the last two years, profits per partner at Washington’s homegrown Dickstein Shapiro have climbed from more than $1 million to almost $2 million. The numbers reflect to a large extent the talent and creativity of Kenneth Adams, who persuaded his partners to bankroll him on a price-fixing case involving the vitamin industry. Working with 153 clients who claimed to have been injured, Adams took down the world’s largest vitamin companies for billions. In the law, that is how legends are made.

4. William R. Martin (Blank Rome). Billy Martin has handled a string of cases for athletes, including the Philadelphia 76ers’ Allen Iverson, then–Washington Wizards Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland, and boxer Riddick Bowe. But he came into his own this year by successfully defending basketball player Jayson Williams on charges of aggravated manslaughter in the shooting of his driver. Not all of Martin’s work is about sports. He has represented parents of both Monica Lewinsky and murdered Washington intern Chandra Levy. This is one Billy Martin that not even George Steinbrenner would fire.

5. Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. (Williams & Connolly). Washington’s most ferocious litigator shows no signs of slowing down as he heads into his mid-sixties. Sullivan is deeply involved in a lengthy trial in Hartford, Connecticut, while he simultaneously plots moves on behalf of embattled New York Stock Exchange chair Dick Grasso. No one loves being a lawyer more—Sullivan is truly one of a kind.

6. William McLucas (Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr). Investigations of corporate greed and corruption couldn’t have come at a better time for Bill McLucas, a former top honcho at the Securities and Exchange Commission. He now gets to charge by the hour for work he used to do on government salary. He has become the lawyer of choice for corporate boards trying to sort out the misdeeds and transactions of their CEOs and general counsels. Who hires McLucas? Start with Enron’s board. Move on to WorldCom and keep going.

7. Michele Roberts (Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld). This Bronx native has risen to the inner sanctum of one of Washington’s most powerful firms. She has done it with talent, hard work, and a congenial personality that endears her to judges, colleagues, clients, and juries. Roberts remains one of the most sought-after defense lawyers in Washington, a position she reached after decades of work in the bowels of Superior Court. She’s proof that hard work still gets rewarded.

8. Plato Cacheris (Baker & McKenzie). It’s no accident that whenever a sensitive case involving espionage or national security arises, this Washington veteran gets a piece of it. Whether it’s defending an admitted spy like Aldrich Ames or representing Monica Lewinsky during the Clinton impeachment, Plato Cacheris is patient and skillful with the media, respected and admired by judges and prosecutors—the kind of lawyer you want at your side in a critical situation. Cacheris proves over and over that you get more with honey than with vinegar.

9. Patrick Regan (Regan, Halperin & Long). In the super-competitive world of personal-injury law, Patrick Regan has emerged as one of the most successful advocates for clients in negligence cases. He has racked up $52 million in verdicts, the standard by which trial lawyers compare themselves. In a field where lawyers sometimes seem more like used-car salesmen than attorneys, Regan does it in a classy way. Most remarkable has been his record before usually stingy Virginia juries. Regan won $6.2 million for an injured skier in an Albemarle County courthouse, the largest personal-injury award ever in that county and the biggest against an American ski operator.

10. Peter D. Greenspun (Greenspun & Mann). Many of his best-known cases have been defeats—but how do you represent the sniper John Muhammad and win? The Fairfax-based criminal-defense lawyer wins most of his cases you don’t hear about and some you do—as when he got TV sportscaster Marv Albert off virtually scot-free from an assault charge. Somebody has to represent the most despised defendants, and Greenspun ends up with many, frequently at personal cost. For that he deserves much credit. He’s the best criminal-defense lawyer in Virginia and one of the best in the nation.

11. Earl Silbert (Piper Rudnick). He is another example of a Washington lawyer with an international reputation. When Enron’s former CEO Kenneth Lay finally goes on trial next year, Texas prosecutors will see the skills that have made Silbert a courtroom star for more than three decades. As a young US Attorney, Silbert was one of the few people whose reputation came out of Watergate unblemished. In contrast to many of his colleagues, Silbert has never been a grandstander. He always puts the interests of his clients above his ego.

12. Walter Dellinger (O’Melveny & Myers). After Martha Stewart’s New York– based attorneys botched her defense against charges that she lied to investigators about insider trading, the homemaking diva saw the light and turned to Washington’s Walter Dellinger. The 63-year-old North Carolinian was Solicitor General under President Clinton and for a time seemed on track for the US Supreme Court. He follows a tradition of very civil, intelligent, and sensible lawyers from the Tar Heel state. Within weeks of joining Stewart’s defense, sources say, he had replaced chaos with order. It was largely his good judgment that persuaded Stewart to get her five-month prison sentence behind her even while he pursues appeals that might restore the rights she has lost.

13. Richard Wiley (Wiley Rein & Fielding). Wiley Rein’s 70-lawyer communication practice is the nation’s largest and most influential. Wiley was chair of the Federal Communications Commission from 1970 to 1977, and his power in private practice has grown as the years have gone by. If CBS airs a controversial program or Verizon offers a new phone service, Wiley probably has had a hand in it. He is a force in developing both policies and technologies, particularly through his role on the FCC Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service. Approachable and personable, Wiley has used his skills to build one of Washington’s top law firms.

14. Jamie Gorelick (Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr). She has become famous through her work on the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks, but Gorelick achieved superlawyer status before that. As a young attorney at Miller Cassidy, Gorelick was considered the best young lawyer anyone had seen in years. She went on to become Janet Reno’s top deputy at Justice, vice chair at Fannie Mae, and now partner at Washington’s top corporate-law firm. She has been sought out by corporations like General Electric and Lockheed Martin to conduct internal investigations. Her star is still rising—unless the Fannie Mae investigation gets in the way, she’s a likely choice for a Cabinet post in a Democratic administration, a prospect that does not hurt her ability to attract clients.

15. Albert Brault (Brault, Graham, Scott & Brault). For all the talk about trial lawyers and frivolous judgments, you’d think defendants in civil cases are just standing idly by while the plaintiff’s bar runs over them. No so. Often this Rockville-based defense attorney, whose law offices spill over into DC and Virginia, stands between the plaintiff lawyer and those big judgments we often read about. Brault is a tireless opponent, the man trial lawyers least want to see facing them. Unlike his foes, Brault does his work in near anonymity. He is fond of pointing out that when he wins a case, it almost never gets into the papers.

16. Sanford K. “Sandy” Ain (Ain & Bank). He’s the top divorce lawyer in Washington. Confident but not cocky, Ain has cornered the market on divorces of the rich and famous, last year leading a very successful representation of Washington billionaire Steven Rales. Discreet to a fault, Ain is so trustworthy and ethical that one wonders how he got into divorce law. Hire Ain, clients say, and you get a lawyer who will be your rock in tough times.

17. John Bray (King & Spalding). No piece of mail is more alarming than a certified letter from the Internal Revenue Service asking for a meeting and advising you to bring your tax records. The first call many make in a situation like that is to John Bray, 66, who has been defending prominent targets of the IRS and other federal agencies for more than 40 years.

18. Ted Olson (Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher). No one in Washington has argued more cases before the US Supreme Court than this gifted attorney, best known for the argument that put George W. Bush in the White House. Olson’s efforts on behalf of Republicans landed him a plum job as US Solicitor General. Last summer, Olson returned to the Washington office of his Los Angeles–based firm. The conservative lawyer enjoys the respect and friendship of people across the aisle.

19. Robert Bennett (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom). Despite some well-publicized missteps in defending President Bill Clinton from Paula Jones’s charges of sexual harassment, Bob Bennett remains one of Washington’s most sought-after defense attorneys. He was recently hired to represent Riggs Bank chair Joe L. Allbritton and his family in the Justice Department’s investigation of money laundering at Riggs. There is no major Washington case that Bennett and his ace partner, Carl Rauh, don’t end up with a piece of. His fierce negotiating skills have won favorable nonjail sentences for many clients.

20. Miguel Estrada (Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher). When the Senate filibustered Miguel Estrada’s appointment to the US Court of Appeals, it preserved the private legal career of a man who could become one of the legends of the Supreme Court bar. With a smooth style and a sharp mind, Estrada now has sympathy on his side as he takes his clients’ cases before the high court. His performances before the appellate courts attract law clerks who want to watch. In what was thought to be a tough case involving retirement benefits on behalf of Aetna, Estrada won a 9–0 victory from the justices. Having been rejected for the appeals court, Estrada will make about $1.2 million this year instead of the $148,000 he would have made as a judge.

21. Elizabeth Espin Stern (Shaw Pittman). In the post-9/11 world, immigration law has become a major area of the law. No one has a more sophisticated understanding of immigration issues than this daughter of an Ecuadorian diplomat. Whether you are a celebrity needing a visa to travel to a “high alert” country or just a traveler suddenly detained by the INS at the airport, Stern is the name you want on your Rolodex. A side benefit of being a client is receiving her e-mail postings on difficult border crossings and the status of various consulates.

22. Jack Olender (Jack H. Olender & Associates). Of all the medical-malpractice lawyers in the country, none is more recognized or feared than Jack Olender. At 69, Olender is assisted by eight top lawyers, including Harlow Case and Sandra Robinson, both first-rate. Once Olender takes your case, a high-figure settlement is usually in the offing. Rare is the insurance-company lawyer who dares challenge this advocate in court.

23. Kenneth Feinberg (the Feinberg Group). A former top aide to Senator Edward Kennedy, Feinberg has become the nation’s most successful public mediator. He was the Washington lawyer chosen by Attorney General John Ashcroft to oversee the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, testament to his reputation for fairness and honesty. His client list looks like a who’s who of American business—Bristol- Myers, Dow Chemical, General Electric, Philip Morris, Shell, Proctor & Gamble, and Upjohn, to name a few. Unlike many lawyers who try to roil the waters, Feinberg steps into the middle of a dispute—such as the litigation over breast implants—and tries to figure out what’s right and who gets what. His ability to achieve equitable resolutions between warring parties is a valued and rare skill.

24. Irvin Nathan (Arnold & Porter). When the former chief financial officer of WorldCom, Scott Sullivan, decided he needed a wise criminal lawyer who would put his interests first, he turned to Nathan of Arnold & Porter. Under Nathan’s steady hand, Sullivan eventually pleaded guilty to three felonies and agreed to cooperate with authorities. Nathan, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, said his client’s goal was to start the process of putting the nightmare behind him and getting his life back together, an approach not all tough-guy lawyers would countenance. In addition to lawyering, Nathan heads a foundation that provides scholarships to graduates of DC’s public high schools.

25. Beth Wilkinson (Latham & Watkins). At the Justice Department a decade ago, Wilkinson gained experience in trial work and expertise in terrorism through her work on the prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Both skills are now valuable in her private practice. Her trial skills place her in the top tier of the nation’s litigators, the lawyers who actually go into court and fight the battles. When Philip Morris needed to get a $28-billion judgment in favor of a smoker reversed, it skipped over many older male attorneys and hired Wilkinson. In the second trial, the tobacco giant was cleared of negligence. Wilkinson has advised Ford Motor on its tire problems and was attorney for the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee after allegations that bribery played a role in bringing the Olympics to Utah. In her early forties, Wilkinson is married to NBC White House correspondent David Gregory.

26. Nancy Luque (Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich). There is no more loyal defender of her clients than Luque, a vivacious native Californian. In the best tradition of criminal lawyers like Clarence Darrow, one of her heroes, Luque loves to fight for the underdog and the unpopular cause. She represented convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard and, more recently, Muslim individuals and organizations in Northern Virginia accused by the Justice Department of helping fund alleged terrorist organizations. You don’t hire Luque for just a case—once she’s on your side, it’s usually for life.

27. Stanley Sporkin (Weil, Gotshal & Manges). It isn’t every day that you can buy the services of a federal judge—legally. Stanley Sporkin isn’t a federal judge anymore, but there are few retired federal judges in private practice anywhere. So when Sporkin left the federal bench to advise clients and mentor younger lawyers, he provided an opportunity for people to get inside the minds of the judges who will hear their cases. Sporkin’s insights about his former colleagues is a part of his knowledge. He also trained many of the top securities lawyers in Washington when he was director of the enforcement division at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

28. David Kendall (Williams & Connolly). Litigator extraordinaire Kendall is best known for his successful defense of President Bill Clinton, and Clinton-era scandals continue to bring him business. This spring Kendall was back in federal court defending Hillary Rodham Clinton against a defamation-of-character suit filed by Gennifer Flowers. But those cases are rarer and rarer for the soft-spoken Indiana native, who spends most of his billable hours these days combatting illegal downloading and music transfers.

29. Seth Waxman (Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr). Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens once described Waxman, 53 in November, as the most brilliant young lawyer he’d ever heard. Waxman now advises a host of corporate clients in high-profile appellate cases, but he also finds time to advise people like Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler, who was subpoenaed by a special prosecutor in connection with the leak that revealed the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Hire Waxman and you get a lawyer who might sit on the high court one day.

30. Alan Fisch (Howrey Simon Arnold & White). A precocious mathematics whiz, Fisch—now 38—fulfilled every geek’s dream last year by beating Microsoft out of a $60-million patent-infringement judgment. Fisch, the youngest partner ever elected at Howrey, overcame an army of Microsoft attorneys with a small team and an understanding of computer law that most lawyers couldn’t begin to fathom. He is now sought out by clients in California’s Silicon Valley and by casinos in computerized Las Vegas eager to hire someone who understands their digital language.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/01/2003 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles