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.