“Washington is probably the only city in the world where people try to make themselves look older,” says 42-year-old Chris Landau of the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. Landau recently argued and won his first case at the United States Supreme Court. Before the argument, he had to meet with his client, whom he’d never seen before.
“The client stared at me and said, ‘You can’t be my Supreme Court lawyer!’ ” Landau says. “It really took the wind out of my sails.”
At many firms, young attorneys get to argue their first cases only when somebody senior to them dies or retires. Says one lawyer who worked at two top firms while in his thirties: “I could never figure it out—senior management was always discouraging entrepreneurship. They wanted things to work like the Senate, where you keep quiet and play the game until you’ve been there a while.”
“Life in a large law firm is a constant battle between greed and ego,” says 40-year-old Alan Fisch, who recently left the DC-based firm Howrey. “If a firm is greedy, they will encourage a young partner. When senior partners feel challenged by younger ones, resentment can reign.”
Landau was lucky. He works for Kirkland & Ellis, one of the top training grounds for young attorneys. One of the youngest partners in the firm’s history was Kenneth Starr, who at 37 became the youngest man ever appointed to the federal appeals court.
At Kirkland, Starr had the self-confidence to assign important work to even younger lawyers. One was Paul Cappuccio, who was named to our first list of best young lawyers eight years ago. Since leaving Kirkland to become general counsel at Time Warner, Cappuccio has carried on the tradition by aiding the careers of another generation of attorneys.
Finding a good mentor in Washington is partly luck, although it doesn’t have to be. The names of partners and firms that foster young talent are known within the business, as are the partners and firms that stifle youthful enthusiasm. Beyond Kirkland & Ellis, young partners are entrusted with important work at WilmerHale, Arnold & Porter, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Gibson Dunn partner Ted Olson, who like Starr served as US solicitor general, works to advance the interests of his young partners, promoting them in the press and pushing them for judgeships and other posts. One of Olson’s proteges is Miguel Estrada, whom Olson helped get named to the powerful US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Estrada’s nomination was filibustered and finally withdrawn, but it demonstrated Olson’s commitment to helping talented younger lawyers.
Olson is a political conservative, and many of the attorneys he promotes share his political philosophy. But if he thinks a colleague has talent, that trumps the politics. Ted Boutrous, who has represented many liberal news organizations, is one example.
On the liberal side, WilmerHale’s Jamie Gorelick has advanced the careers of many associates. Like Gibson Dunn, Wilmer is a firm where young lawyers want to be. “Jamie is anxious to go to bat for her kids,” says one protege. “But she is not alone. In my experience, many of the most respected lawyers in town take pride in helping the younger lawyers.”
But every ambitious young lawyer can’t work at Kirkland, Gibson, or Wilmer. Many find their way to government, an increasingly attractive alternative to going straight to work for one of the big law factories. “This is not a place where people stay in the same job for 15, 20, 30 years,” says Olson, who has left Gibson Dunn twice for government servÂice. “There is a high degree of turnover in the interesting jobs, so there are openings all the time.”
Thirty years ago that wasn’t the case. Many of the rich firms looked down on government service. Law-school grads who went to work for the government risked not being able to make the move to more lucrative private practice.
Today government service is seen as invaluable by big-firm Washington managing partners, many of whom have worked in government themselves.
Now talented young lawyers find they can get more courtroom experience in the US Attorney’s office or as a staff lawyer at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, or the Patent and Trademark Office than they ever could as a big-firm associate fighting for scraps from a partner.
It’s a long-term view because working for the government reduces an attorney’s income substantially. Assistant attorney general Alice Fisher is one of Washington’s brightest legal stars. Had she stayed in private practice, she would easily be making in the upper six figures. But when she returns to private practice, she’ll quickly make up the deficit. Offers for Fisher are expected to start in the seven-figure range.
“These days,” says Landau, “it helps, not hurts, to have stamped your passport in the government. Otherwise it is hard to break into a top-tier litigation practice.”
They used to say of writers that you have to be published to get published. In litigation, says Landau, it sometimes seems that you have to have experience to get experience. Government provides that.
Casey Cooper, a 39-year-old attorney at prestigious Baker Botts, says private practice also can provide experience: “The trick is to prove your worth—at a lower billing rate—by putting yourself in a position to interact directly with the firm’s clients.”
Says Jen Spaziano, an admitted workaholic who just made partner at Skadden, Arps, “Good work speaks for itself. Somebody might not notice your first good brief, but the third, fourth, or fifth good argument, good presentation, or good pitch, people are going to recognize.”
Another key: Make sure you’re available. The big stars and the senior partners are often tied up in long meetings or power lunches at the Army-Navy Club. While they are busy, Spaziano says, she is at work building a relationship with the client, a regulator, or even opposing counsel. These efforts will be recognized by veteran attorneys, who often are looking for a bit of what made them successful.
Ted Olson says forget the idea of sucking up, joining private clubs, or working brutal hours. “My advice to someone who wants to get ahead is to find interesting and successful people to work for, do a hell of a good job, and from time to time move to something else to broaden your experience and expand your circles of friends, mentors, and colleagues.”
Competence and confidence are found in abundance in our 40 top young lawyers. They were selected on the recommendations of senior partners, lawyers previously on this list, and others. Some are in private practice, some in government. In the decades to come they will probably be leaders of Washington’s most powerful legal institutions.
1. Paul D. Clement, 40 this month. He is history’s second-youngest solicitor general—the most prestigious legal job in the country except for a seat on the Supreme Court. The youngest, Walter J. Cummings Jr., served only about 90 days in 1952 at the end of the Truman administration.