Big Guns: Washington’s Top 30 Lawyers (2007)
Washington lawyers may tend to dress alike, but they’re not all the same when dealing with problems. Here are 30 of the very best. Hang on to the list—when you really need a lawyer, you might want one of these.
NOTE: This list is from 2007. To see the current Top Lawyers, head here.
Some of those on our list of Washington’s top lawyers have represented presidents. Others have defended murderers and thieves. Some might have represented—or might yet represent—you.
If the United States is a nation of laws, Washington is a city of lawyers: There are more here per capita than in any other city in the world. There are more here than in many entire countries.
This list of top lawyers in private practice skews toward those who represent people as opposed to corporations. It excludes some important but technical fields of law. But some areas of corporate and constitutional law are so bound up with our city that we couldn’t ignore them. That includes lawyers who practice before the Supreme Court, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.
Most people get through life without having to hire an attorney for anything more serious than drawing up a will or overseeing a real-estate transaction. But legal trouble can happen to anyone—and often does without warning. Lots of Washingtonians are arrested on criminal charges, from drunk driving to vehicular homicide. You might be called to testify before Congress. More common is a letter from the IRS—or from an attorney representing a departing spouse. You can slip and fall on an unshoveled sidewalk—or someone can fall on yours.
One thing you’ll discover if you need one of these lawyers: They don’t come cheap. For a good criminal-defense lawyer, the floor is close to $400 an hour. Rates for the top attorneys reach $1,000 an hour. Most lawyers bill in six-minute increments, meaning a one-minute call counts as six minutes—a tenth of an hour. So if you call a lawyer for a quick question, try to get six minutes’ worth of advice.
I have spent much of the past 20 years writing about Washington lawyers. I have met, spoken to, and observed thousands of them. I’ve become friends with a few.
This is the fifth time that The Washingtonian has compiled a list of top lawyers. It is created primarily by peer recommendation. We asked, by telephone and e-mail, some 1,000 attorneys who (excluding themselves and members of their firms) the top practitioners in their fields are and whom they would hire to represent them in a range of areas. Then we checked on those people and asked for their recommendations. We invited them to take shots at one another; many availed themselves of the opportunity. One wrote that a colleague “should not be included on any list of best lawyers. No knowledgeable client would or should retain this individual.”
In some areas, such as securities law, there is virtual unanimity about who the best are. In a contentious field like divorce, it gets hard after the top guy, Sandy Ain. In such cases we talked to clients, judges, and former judges to get their opinions.
In the end we came up with some 800 attorneys—about 1 percent of the estimated 80,000 lawyers around Washington. Among those, we identified 30 to single out as the very best. Such choices involve arbitrary decisions and subjective judgments. We tried to pick people from across the region, from different practice groups, and from different law firms so no firm would have more than two on the top-30 list. In some cases, up-and-comers replaced veterans who had been on the list for many years—not because the older lawyers aren’t good at what they do but to recognize newer talent.
Four times in the past we have chosen Washington’s number-one lawyer. Previous winners are Robert Bennett of Skadden Arps, Brendan Sullivan of Williams & Connolly, Michele Roberts of Akin Gump, and Robert Barnett of Williams & Connolly.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid says this year’s winner couldn’t win confirmation as US attorney general. That might keep him from being the nation’s top lawyer, but he is Washington’s top lawyer.
1. Theodore B. Olson (Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher). Long known as one of the nation’s top constitutional lawyers, this native Californian made the winning argument in the landmark case of Bush v. Gore, which put President Bush in the White House. Olson’s resonant baritone voice matches his wit and reason. Because he arrived in Washington with Ronald Reagan, Olson is perceived in some circles as a spokesman for the right, a view held by few who actually know him.
His clients have included such Democrats as former senator Chuck Robb and Congresswoman Jane Harman. When Time’s Matt Cooper was ordered to turn over his notes in the Scooter Libby investigation, it was Olson who filed Cooper’s appeal to the US Supreme Court. He represents both CNN and Fox, probably the only man who could handle both.
A resident of Great Falls, Olson has argued 47 cases at the Supreme Court—he says his record is 34 wins, ten losses, and two no-decisions; one case is pending. The red-haired descendant of Norwegian immigrants was passed over twice for a seat on the Supreme Court by the president he put in the White House. Olson has always pushed more forcefully for the advancement of protégés such as controversial federal-court nominee Miguel Estrada. He is a top adviser to Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.
Olson turned 61 on September 11, 2001—the day his first wife, Barbara, died aboard the American Airlines plane that terrorists crashed into the Pentagon. He remarried last year.
2. Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. (Williams & Connolly). He may be Washington’s most famous lawyer because of his televised assertion during the Iran-Contra hearings that he was not a potted plant. But his reputation is such that New York Stock Exchange chair Dick Grasso bypassed the entire New York bar to secure Sullivan’s services in his defense.
For decades Sullivan has prided himself on the claim that no client of his had served jail time. He suffered a rare loss last year when Cendant Corporation CEO Walter Forbes was convicted of fraud by a Connecticut jury; Forbes is serving a 12-year sentence. It took prosecutors three trials—the first two ended in hung juries—to beat Sullivan. No lawyer can win every case, and Sullivan’s now been at it for 38 years. At 65, he remains, in the minds of prosecutors, the most feared courtroom opponent in the nation.
3. Sanford K. “Sandy” Ain (Ain & Bank). For most legal specialties you can have a spirited argument about which of four or five lawyers might be the best. But among divorce lawyers, Sandy Ain is alone at the top. When Law & Order star S. Epatha Merkerson thanked him during a nationally televised awards ceremony, Ain was embarrassed. He takes pride in not having people know what he is doing.
Ain disdains the acrimonious aspects of divorce and laments the loss of civility in modern society. He would rather divide assets than assign blame for a failed marriage. Many millionaire divorces, like that of Danaher Corporation’s Steven Rales, end up in his hands. He did such a good job for billionaire Sheila Johnson, ex-wife of BET founder Robert Johnson, that she named him general counsel of her growing sports, hotel, and business empire. Along with star partner Rita Bank, Ain has trained a stable of younger partners to practice divorce law in his own image.
4. William R. Martin (Sutherland Asbill & Brennan). Athletes provide a rich and never-ending source of litigation, and Billy Martin, a Pittsburgh native who came to Washington to attend Howard University, has positioned himself to make the most of it. Most recently the unflamboyant Martin was hired to defend Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on federal and state charges relating to illegal dogfighting.
Politicians occasionally need big-time help, too. Idaho senator Larry Craig has hired Martin to find a way to expunge his guilty plea in the famous foot-tapping incident at the Minneapolis airport. A judge ruled against Craig earlier this year, but the legal battles for both Craig and Vick continue.
5. Maureen E. Mahoney (Latham & Watkins). The preeminent female litigator at the US Supreme Court, this former clerk for Justice William Rehnquist has argued 18 cases at the high court, winning 16 of them. The 53-year-old daughter of an Indiana personal-injury attorney, Mahoney is fast on her feet, a quick study of arcane issues, and fiercely determined.
She is on most short lists to serve on the Supreme Court herself one day. In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt that the good friend who succeeded her as a clerk in Rehnquist’s chambers is now the Chief Justice of the United States.
6. Seth P. Waxman (WilmerHale). Waxman, who was solicitor general during the Clinton administration, may be Washington’s busiest attorney. He has argued landmark decisions on everything from campaign advertising to patent disputes. He has found time to represent a developer trying to get slot licenses for a casino in Pittsburgh, argued a federal-circuit case worth hundreds of millions to his client TiVo, and is handling the appeals of six Bosnians imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, five accountants accused of fraud, and a high-tech company claiming that eBay stole its ideas. Whew!
Waxman, no relation to Congressman Henry Waxman, may be trying to stockpile cash before the Democrats regain the White House. He is considered a front-runner for the first Supreme Court vacancy should Hillary Clinton win the White House, a job that would cut his salary by more than a million dollars a year.
7. Robert S. Bennett (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom). A still-pugnacious former prosecutor, Bob Bennett has more than his share of critics, most of whom like to mention that it has been years since Bennett tried a major case in court. But at 68, Bennett doesn’t have to. His greatest skill is getting potential indictments quashed.
In one of his greatest achievements as the top criminal lawyer at one of the nation’s most sophisticated firms, Bennett succeeded in stopping a criminal prosecution of accounting giant KPMG that some believe would have destroyed the company. Bennett’s roster of all-star clients also includes ex–New York Times reporter Judith Miller, ex–World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, and the family of a Duke University lacrosse player.
“Being a Washington lawyer involves a lot more than showing up in court,” says Bennett, who adds that he doesn’t remember his last full-scale trial. “It involves knowing where the pressure points are. In the corporate world, if you have to show up in court you have already lost.”
8. Carol Elder Bruce (Venable). A graduate of George Washington University’s law school, Bruce spent a decade as a prosecutor under four US Attorneys, including the legendary Earl Silbert, before she was named special prosecutor to investigate Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1998. No charges were brought.
Now she litigates cases across the country and as close to her Northern Virginia home as Prince George’s County, where she won a not-guilty verdict for a prominent lawyer/accountant who had been charged with bribery and theft of government funds. After a two-week trial and 15 hours of incriminating wiretaps, the jury ruled in her client’s favor after less than two hours of deliberation.
Just two months later, Bruce was back in court, having skipped summer vacation, to win a total acquittal on bribery and corruption counts for Blake Esherick, an associate of indicted Washington developer Douglas Jemal’s. College students owe her a debt as well. Bruce’s legal maneuverings on behalf of a GW student forced the DC government to stop giving criminal citations to underage campus drinkers.
9. Michele A. Roberts (Akin Gump). As a young girl growing up in the Bronx, Roberts was dragged by her mother to courtrooms to watch trials. It was a form of entertainment at the time, but it sowed the seeds of interest in a woman who has become one of the finest trial lawyers in Washington.
After nearly two decades of working court appointments and representing common criminals, Roberts’s talent for persuading juries began paying off. She is now a partner at Akin Gump, where her clients wear suits and she draws an average of nearly $1 million a year. Roberts already has three major trials scheduled for 2008, including one in which she will defend Valero Energy Corporation in a wrongful-death action.
10. Robert B. Barnett (Williams & Connolly). A case could be made that this courtly Illinois native, now 61, is just about the most influential figure in town. In addition to negotiating memoir deals for the rich and famous—including former Fed chair Alan Greenspan, former British prime minister Tony Blair, second lady Lynne Cheney, and both Clintons—Barnett arranges and negotiates business deals and employment agreements for dozens of government figures and fellow lawyers.
If knowledge is power, Barnett knows more about what people are making and thinking than anyone else in Washington. His bipartisan practice is a legal marvel, and one that would not have succeeded were he not a man of discretion and judgment—which, when you get down to it, is what you really want in a lawyer.
11. Reid H. Weingarten (Steptoe & Johnson). Along with Brendan Sullivan, Weingarten has been the go-to guy for criminal defendants during the last decade. A former trial attorney for the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, Weingarten soaks up the facts of a case and synthesizes them for a jury as if by magic.
No lawyer has greater command or is quicker on his feet during cross-examination than Weingarten—skills he demonstrated by winning a near-total acquittal for Washington developer Douglas Jemal, whose situation appeared dire when he was indicted on charges of bribery, conspiracy, and defrauding the DC government.
12. Earl Silbert (DLA Piper). Washington has a host of top criminal lawyers who started in the late 1960s in the US Attorney’s office—Robert Bennett and Sidley Austin’s Thomas Green are among the most prominent. But ask whom they admire most, and the name that surfaces is Earl J. Silbert, whose two decades at the Justice Department included five years as US Attorney for the District of Columbia.
Silbert was an original prosecutor in the Watergate case and played a key role in bringing the Nixon administration’s wrongdoing to light, much to the discomfort of his Nixon-appointed bosses. Now 71, Silbert is still much in demand. Recently he has been seen giving advice to Chiquita Banana executives in jeopardy for allegedly paying bribes to “terrorist” militia groups in Colombia.
13. William McLucas (WilmerHale). When a corporate board and a CEO come to loggerheads, Bill McLucas often winds up between them. Last year Lucas’s internal investigation of United HealthCare Corporations’s William McGuire led to the ouster of the one-time golden boy of one of Wall Street’s hot companies.
McLucas, a former director of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission, is almost always the lawyer of choice for a business or corporate board with an SEC problem. Among clients who have sought his help are then-senator Bill Frist, who was investigated by the SEC on suspicion of insider trading in HCA, which his family founded. The investigation was closed with no action taken.
14. Peter D. Greenspun (Greenspun, Shapiro, Davis & Leary). Greenspun represents defendants with some of the most hopeless cases, as when a judge picked him to represent convicted sniper John Muhammad. But win-loss records can be deceiving. Few lawyers understand the psychology of juries better than this savvy 54-year-old graduate of George Mason University School of Law. While his defeats are sometimes front-page news, Greenspun’s victories are impressive given the nature of his clientele.
Along with his talented friend and now partner, Jonathan Shapiro, he has won freedom for alleged drug pushers, pornographers, and murderers.
15. Robert C. Bonsib (Marcus & Bon sib). If Peter Greenspun is the best “blue-collar” criminal-defense lawyer in Virginia, many believe that accolade in Maryland belongs to Bob Bonsib. A one-time prosecutor, Bonsib won freedom for an FBI agent charged with covering up a police-dog attack on a homeless man.
A Gaithersburg resident who turns 59 this month, Bonsib really turned heads in a 2005 case in which three former officials of the Washington Teachers Union were accused of an embezzlement conspiracy. Two of the three were convicted and received long prison sentences. But Bonsib’s client was acquitted after Bonsib, to show his scorn for the charges, sat quietly and saved questions for the end.
Says one attorney: “A lesser lawyer’s ego would have rendered him incapable of saying ‘I have no questions for this witness’ for six weeks. Not Bonsib. He stayed quiet, gave a closing argument pointing out the deficiencies in the government’s case, and walked his client home.”
16. Paula M. Junghans (Zuckerman Spaeder). Many regard Zuckerman Spaeder as the city’s best boutique law firm. Among its stars is the well-known William Taylor, whose clients have included US senators and other lawyers. But inside the firm, many lawyers stand most in awe of the white-haired, detail-oriented Paula Junghans, who was once acting assistant attorney general for tax at the Department of Justice.
Junghans’s expertise on tax matters is unmatched; she’s the first person anyone with serious tax issues should seek out. One who has is former Ernst & Young partner Robert Coplan, who, with others, is accused of conspiracy to defraud the IRS, tax evasion, and six other charges.
17. Lanny Breuer (Covington & Bur ling). Many people wondered why, when both Clinton national-security adviser Sandy Berger and Bush aide Scooter Libby were deemed to have lied to investigators, the former got off with a wrist slap but the latter had to undergo a trial and appeared headed to prison until his sentence was commuted. A key difference might have been in their lawyers. Berger’s attorney, Lanny Breuer, is one of the cleverest in Washington. He had to be. During the Clinton administration, Breuer represented the mischievous chief executive during his impeachment trial and four special-counsel investigations.
Breuer’s Berger defense was a case study in Washington lawyering. He masterfully parried most of the charges and got Berger a favorable plea despite all damaging evidence. Justice Department veterans say that when a lawyer comes in looking for a light sentence today, he is apt to say, “I want a Berger.”
18. Patrick Regan (Regan Zambri & Long). Regan is one personal-injury lawyer who could be a poster boy for legal ethics and integrity in a field often ridiculed as being populated by ambulance chasers. He has negotiated favorable settlements for clients ranging from an Arnold & Porter partner injured by a defective wheelchair to a 23-year-old beaten outside a bar (for whom Regan secured $4.5 million in compensation).
Most recently, Regan represented the family of slain New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum in its $20-million suit against the District of Columbia for inadequately transporting and treating Rosenbaum after he was attacked on the street—a suit the family has agreed to drop if the District corrects deficiencies in its emergency-response procedures.
19. Alan Fisch (Kaye Scholer). In 2003 Fisch—then the youngest equity partner at Howrey—won a $62-million patent-infringement case against Microsoft. Fisch, 41, has taken patent infringement to center stage among practice areas here. Last year he defended Comdata Networks, a leading supplier of electronic gift cards, against patent-infringement charges that could have meant the end of gift-card sales at more than 300 retailers, from JCPenney to Brooks Brothers, just weeks before the Christmas season. Fisch prevailed, and friends joked that he was the Jew who saved Christmas.
Fisch’s knowledge of the insides of a vast array of products—including slot machines—has made him a must call for clients from Costco to General Dynamics.
20. Elaine Charlson Bredehoft (Charlson Bredehoft & Cohen). You won’t see her face on the side of a bus or plastered on a billboard, but for 23 years this Minnesotan turned Virginian has been the area’s most effective personal-injury lawyer. Specializing in employment cases, Bredehoft in 2006 won a $5-million decision from the historically stingy Virginia Supreme Court in a breach-of-contract case on behalf of an executive fired by his company for alleged mismanagement. She won $2.2 million for a real-estate agent fired when she got pregnant.
For executives under threat from new corporate owners, Bredehoft, who works out of Reston, has been a savior in a legal landscape not always kind to plaintiffs.
21. Whayne Quin (Holland & Knight). When it comes to Washington real estate, Quin—whose first name was his grandmother’s surname—is the legal master. There is hardly a major project of the last 35 years that Quin has not played a role in. He is currently counseling builders and developers on two dozen projects, including new office buildings at Farragut Square and the big Akridge Air Rights project near Union Station. He recently argued a case at the DC Court of Appeals that could turn the old Italian Embassy on 16th Street into a 79-unit condo.
A legend among his peers, Quin gives back as much as he gets. He has served on boards and contributed generously to Children’s Hospital, Safe Kids Worldwide, National Building Museum, and many other groups.
22. James Wallace (Wiley Rein). If lawyers are judged by monetary results, it’s hard to find anyone more worthy of acclaim than Wallace, a quiet Atlanta native who has a quiet patent-law practice at Wiley Rein, where he is a founding partner. Several years ago he persuaded his partners to let him take on a rare case—one in which he would be paid only if he won. Corporate firms usually work for hourly rates; they seldom gamble.
The target was Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry. The client was a Chicago man who claimed to have invented a key piece of technology used in the popular communications device. In the end, Wallace won a $612-million judgment, one of the largest patent-infringement awards in history—and one worth millions to himself and his 60 equity partners at Wiley Rein.
23. Kenneth R. Feinberg (Feinberg Group). One of the most unusual law practices in Washington is operated by Ken Feinberg, who from 1975 to 1978 served as special counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, then headed by Edward M. Kennedy. After 12 years with a New York–based law firm, Feinberg founded his own practice here in 1993. Unlike most lawyers, who operate in an atmosphere of conflict, Feinberg often is hired as an arbitrator, mediator, and adviser. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft chose Feinberg to oversee the distribution of the victim-compensation fund. He was asked to play a similar role after the murder of 32 students at Virginia Tech.
His selection in both cases is testament to his reputation for fairness and integrity. His book about the 9/11 victims fund, What Is Life Worth: The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11, is a remarkable story.
24. Thomas C. Green (Sidley Austin). One Washington lawyer who doesn’t mind courtroom combat is Tom Green, a burly former artillery-battery commander in Vietnam. There is hardly a Washington firefight in recent decades that the Yale law grad hasn’t been involved in. He represented General Richard Secord in the Iran-Contra case, Senator Donald Riegle in the 1980s savings-and-loan scandal, and the estate of Jack Kent Cooke in connection with the sale of the Redskins.
Green has five cases on his plate for 2008, including the likely defense of Puerto Rico’s Governor Anibal Acevedo-Vila against allegations of campaign irregularities. There’s talk that five trials in a year might send Green, born ten months before Pearl Harbor, into retirement. Says Green, “When they’re over, I’ll see if I can still get out of bed.”
25. David Schertler (Schertler & Ono rato). Being charged with a crime is a traumatic—even life-changing—experience, says Schertler, a 51-year-old former prosecutor with an impressive résumé. When clients come knocking, Schertler provides sensitivity and a personal relationship. After his 1982 graduation from law school at the University of Virginia, Schertler worked his way up from trial attorney in the Justice Department to chief of the homicide section in the US Attorney’s Office in DC, trying more than 50 jury cases and conducting more than 100 grand-jury investigations along the way.
He founded his and Danny Onorato’s litigation firm in 1996. With many members of the old guard in criminal defense nearing retirement, Schertler is viewed by many as the leader of the next generation of top-line defense lawyers.
26. Elizabeth Espin Stern (Baker McKenzie). When Stern joined Baker McKenzie in May 2005, the firm gave her “the map room.” The daughter of an Ecuadorian diplomat, Stern heads the firm’s global practice from an office with an antique map of the world on its domed ceiling. With good contacts in embassies, consulates, and labor ministries across the current-day map, this University of Virginia law graduate, fluent in Spanish and French, is the preeminent immigration expert on the executive level. Her weekly updates to clients on fast-changing immigration laws and travel restrictions are must reads for many Washington-based business travelers. Trapped at a border crossing? Call Liz.
27. Joseph Montedonico (Montedonico, Belcuore & Tazzara). A self-described “frustrated physician,” this native Washingtonian believes in medicine—and has spent 35 years defending people who wear white coats. Montedonico says the medical-malpractice climate in DC is such that doctors are quitting practice or moving to Maryland and Virginia, where they perceive juries to be less inclined to rule automatically in favor of plaintiffs. At 70 he remains the most trusted advocate for Washington doctors and the one most respected by his opponents.
28. Michael C. Durney (Law Offices of Michael C. Durney). A former deputy assistant attorney general for the tax division at the Department of Justice, Durney is one of the most effective tax lawyers in Washington. From his relaxed offices in Georgetown, the 64-year-old expert is more likely to represent individuals than corporations. His fee—about $475 an hour—is considerably less that you might pay at a larger corporate law firm. Durney is equally adept at giving good advice and performing in the courtroom.
29. Cheryl New (Sandground New & Lowinger). Operating out of an office overlooking the Tysons Corner area, New has established one of Washington’s most effective family-law practices. The firm’s founder, legendary divorce “bomber” Mark Sandground, 75, is as irascible as ever. But New, charging $450 an hour, is quick to sum up a case and, unlike many of her better-known peers, settles cases with dispatch. Her motto: “Diagnose the problem quickly and solve it with the least amount of pain.” One of New’s chief assets is her partnership with tax whiz Jeff Lowinger, a numbers cruncher who likes to keep the ugly side of domestic cases at bay. Together they form a powerful divorce-law duo.
30. Nancy Fax (Pasternak & Fidis). When colleagues say Nancy Fax has written the book on estate and probate law, they mean it. With advanced degrees in tax from Georgetown University Law Center, Fax founded the standard, DC Estates, Trust, and Probate Law Digest, published by the District of Columbia Bar. Headquartered in Bethesda, Fax has an uncanny ability to untangle confusing technical matters. Her understanding of the law and personalized approach have made her a trusted adviser for couples and families planning their estates.
Click here for the complete list of Washington's 800 best lawyers.