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The Perfect Lawyer
Jack Miller Worked for Nixon and the Kennedys--and Built a Law Firm the Likes of Which They No Longer Make By Kim Eisler
Comments () | Published May 1, 2001

Several years before his death in 1988, Edward Bennett Williams, the founding partner of Williams & Connolly, was uneasy about the direction his high-powered firm was taking. To talk through his frustration, Williams called the one colleague he knew who not only would listen sympathetically but also could understand his situation. That was Herbert J. "Jack" Miller.

"Could you meet me at the Palm?" Williams asked. The two men had tangled for two decades, during which they had developed the mutual respect of gladiators. As a Justice Department prosecutor in the mid-1960s, Miller had gone after Williams's most notorious client, Teamsters Union chief Jimmy Hoffa. Williams used to say, only half joking, that it was prosecutors like Miller who kept defense lawyers like him in business.

But that was years ago. On this day in the mid-1980s, Miller was himself a top defense lawyer, dependent on prosecutors to keep the revolving doors at the US Courthouse spinning. The two men had become more than titanic adversaries and defense-bar rivals. They had become friends.

When Miller arrived at the Palm, he could see that the legendary lawyer was morose--and it wasn't from the cancer that would soon take Williams's life. Williams looked across the table as the waiters hustled to keep the bread basket filled.

"Don't ever do it," he told Miller.

At first Miller wasn't sure what Williams was talking about. But one of the things that made Miller a good lawyer was being a good listener. He let Williams talk.

Williams had started Williams & Connolly with a handful of hotshot lawyers. Now, he complained, his firm was getting so big that all the lawyers in the office couldn't even be sure of knowing one another.

All Williams had ever wanted to do was try cases, but Williams & Connolly had branched off into all kinds of corporate representations. The firm was too big, too spread out, too corporate and bureaucratic. He looked up from his martini and stared deep into Miller's eyes.

"Don't ever do it," he said again. "Don't get big."

For Jack Miller, the warning was timely. His law firm, Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, was at a crossroads, almost exactly where Williams & Connolly had been a decade earlier. It was still small and targeted toward litigation, trial work, and criminal law. Everyone knew everyone; Miller Cassidy fostered a collegiality that was disappearing from law firms. No one at Miller Cassidy was told where to buy gray striped suits, as lawyers at some firms were.

For its handful of partners, Miller Cassidy was the best place to practice law. It was free of bureaucratic and administrative headaches. Jack Miller and his partners could take whatever cases they wanted, and no one would worry about money. They assumed there would always be plenty.

Miller took Williams's warning to heart. Over the years the temptation to grow larger was strong. But Miller always resisted, fearing that growth would ruin the esprit de corps the firm enjoyed.

In the 13 years after Edward Bennett Williams's death, Williams & Connolly grew to more than 180 lawyers with profits per partner of $650,000, as big as any in the legal business. It has become the most prominent law firm in Washington and, through its representation of President Clinton, perhaps the best-known law firm in the world.

Early this year, Miller Cassidy finally gave up trying to stay small. Still with only 23 partners--and 35 lawyers altogether--Miller Cassidy shut its doors at 2555 M Street, Northwest. All but two of the partners marched downtown to work for the behemoth Texas firm Baker Botts.

Had Williams mislead Miller with his "don't grow" plea? Miller doesn't think so.

"He hated the idea that Williams & Connolly had gotten so big, even if they have done well," Miller says.

On a cold day shortly before the end, Miller was in his office working at a 110-year-old roll-top desk. He is a strong man at 77, with thinning black hair, an amiable manner, and a Midwestern style of speech. His strength comes from more than lugging law books into court for 50 years--Miller is a legendary woodchopper. Along his office walls is a row of axes given to him on special occasions over the years.

His roll-top desk is testimony to his strength. On the day Miller bought it some 20 years ago in Northern Virginia, former attorney general John Mitchell happened by to see Miller loading it into a truck. "Glad to see you have a fallback profession," Mitchell said. "Furniture moving."

Orbiting the desk and walls are mementos of a lifetime, including signed pictures of five US presidents dating back to Herbert Hoover, who knew Miller's father.

There is a seascape painted and given to him by client and friend Edward Kennedy, whom Miller represented after Chappaquiddick and at other times in the senator's stormy public career. The painting is inscribed, "It takes the mind of a great lawyer to appreciate the art of a great painter."

Then there is a note from the man with whom Miller would become most closely identified, Richard M. Nixon: "A great lawyer, a wise adviser and a true friend."

The inscription on the painting and the former president's words frame the unusual position that Miller has occupied in Washington. It may be counterintuitive to people who divide this town into liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, but the central fact of Miller's career is that the lawyer who was closest to the Kennedys also become the advocate and friend of Richard Nixon.

Jack Miller grew up in Minneapolis; his father once worked for Harold Stassen, the boy wonder of Republican politics who once seemed destined to become President of the United States. In March 1943, during his second year at the University of Minnesota, Miller quit school to join the army. He shipped to Texas for basic training and then enrolled in Officer Candidate School. As a second lieutenant, Miller served in an aviation-engineering battalion in New Guinea and the Philippines. He was preparing for the invasion of Japan when the war ended.

In 1946 Miller came to Washington to finish college at George Washington University. During the war, his father had moved here as head of the Tax Foundation, a Republican-oriented organization lobbying for government reform and tax relief. Miller was living with his parents on Volta Place in Georgetown when he met Carey Kinsolving, whom he later married.

After graduating from GW law school, Miller took a job in the Washington office of Kirkland & Ellis, a firm known for its expertise in telephone and communications work. His first break came on a patent case, when he was asked to represent an inventor who had made something called the "Hush-a-Phone," a device that you attached to your telephone so other people couldn't overhear your conversations.

AT&T, which had a near monopoly on US phone service, did not allow competitors to market devices that would attach to Bell equipment without its permission. When the Hush-a-Phone appeared, AT&T lawyers threatened sellers with lawsuits. Miller successfully argued in the US Court of Appeals that Bell's prohibition against "tie-in sales" was a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Experts consider the Hush-a-Phone case the first legal step in the unraveling of the Bell System's monopoly.

That victory and a string of others made Jack Miller well known in legal circles. In the late 1950s he was asked by a federal judge to represent a three-member board devised by the court to monitor the Teamsters Union and its controversial president, Jimmy Hoffa. The panel came under attack from Hoffa's lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams, who planned to gain gradual control over the panel. Williams's attacks were countered by Miller and followed with interest by Robert F. Kennedy, a young attorney on the Senate Government Operations Committee.

In 1961, when Robert Kennedy was named attorney general by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, the issue of organized crime and its penetration into the labor movement was high on the agenda. Miller was at his farmhouse in Potomac one night after the election. He was with Carey and their two sons when the phone rang and Bobby Kennedy's voice came crackling through the wires.

"I want you to be head of the [Justice] Department's criminal division," Kennedy said.

"But I'm a Republican," Miller protested. "One of my clients is the Chicago Tribune. It's a Republican newspaper."

Replied Kennedy, "I don't give a damn. Get down here."

In the three years that followed, during which Robert Kennedy ran the Department of Justice, Jack Miller became a loyal lieutenant and devoted admirer. Miller's work helped demonstrate what had long been suspected but never proven in court--that a "Mafia" did exist.

On a Friday in November 1963, Miller was at a meeting to discuss the power of organized crime when word came that President Kennedy had been shot. On Sunday night, after assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered by Jack Ruby, Miller boarded an Air Force jet for Dallas. Tensions were so high that to avoid attention the plane landed at an out-of-the-way terminal operated by the Coast Guard.

He met with Dallas prosecutor Henry Wade and made clear that Wade's too-frequent comments to the press were not helping solve the crimes. Miller blamed Wade's penchant for seeking publicity for the press circus that Ruby had exploited to kill Oswald.

Then Miller got word that Texas attorney general Waggoner Carr was planning to announce a state inquiry into the Kennedy assassination and the shootings of Oswald and police officer J.D. Tippitt. Miller drove to Austin in an attempt to call Carr off. Miller had quit smoking, but on the way to Austin he went through two packs of Winstons.

Miller told Carr, "The last thing you want is a Texas inquiry into an assassination that made a Texan the President." When Miller returned to Washington the Texas investigation was made moot by the appointment of the Warren Commission.

In the days that followed, Robert Kennedy came into the Justice Department on very few occasions; in 1965 he was replaced by Nicholas Katzenbach and in 1967 by LBJ's buddy Ramsey Clark.

Miller was ready to leave Justice, too. With two friends--Courtney Evans, an assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and John Cassidy, a Justice Department colleage he had met on Teamsters work who came on board a few months later--he formed the law firm Miller, Cassidy & Evans.

According to Cassidy, Miller had been reluctant to go into private practice. He knew he was no administrator and lacked confidence in his ability to bring in business. Miller told Cassidy that he would join only if Cassidy could find three clients they could start with.

As it happened, the Teamsters were attempting to convince race-car drivers to join their union. Bill France, the man who founded NASCAR, the stock-car racing circuit, contacted Cassidy, whom he knew would do everything possible to block the Teamsters. So two of the firm's first clients were NASCAR and France's International Speedway Corporation, which owned such tracks as the Daytona speedways. France paid Miller Cassidy the first retainer it received. The relationship endures: Cassidy is still the lead outside attorney for NASCAR and was at Daytona in February when racing legend Dale Earnhardt was killed. •

Despite his growing law practice, much of Miller's time in the 1960s was still devoted to Robert Kennedy. Miller became a campaigner and fundraiser after Kennedy decided to seek the presidency in 1968. He had been in California campaigning with Kennedy but was back in Washington when the candidate was gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan. Miller was a pallbearer at RFK's funeral. Over the next few years, Miller frequently turned up at Ethel Kennedy's house, Hickory Hill, to trim the trees and keep up the yard work.

The following year, 1969, Senator Edward Kennedy asked Miller to come to Massachusetts and represent him in the aftermath of an automobile accident that claimed the life of a young campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne. Coincidentally, Kopechne had worked at Miller Cassidy before going to work for the senator.

Miller worked with Kennedy on the coroner's inquest that followed the accident. It was the beginning of a long professional relationship that would involve several scrapes between the Kennedy family and the law.

Miller's relationship with the Kennedys did not mean he had turned into a Democrat. In 1970 some friends talked him into running for lieutenant governor of Maryland--as a Republican. He was soundly defeated and never ran for public office again.

By 1974, Miller and Cassidy, since joined by partners Raymond Larroca and Nathan Lewin to form Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, was well established as a criminal-defense boutique. Evans had left to work in government again. The firm's success had come in an era when the megafirms from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles had yet to invade Washington.

A litigation boutique served an essential purpose in Washington. When a large corporate firm like Covington & Burling or Hogan & Hartson had a client with criminal-law problems, it would refer the client to a law firm with that specialty. It was the considered view of lawyers that criminal law required such an intimate knowledge of local courts and judges that it was best left to experts.

By the early 1970s, two litigation boutiques had shot away from the pack. One was Williams & Connolly, which had hired young turks like Brendan Sullivan Jr. to promote Edward Bennett Williams's scorched-earth method of trying cases, a philosophy that basically said, "We don't care who we hurt as long as our client is acquitted." Miller Cassidy was the other elite boutique.

After Richard Nixon left the White House in August 1974, he feared that special prosecutor Leon Jaworski would hound him all the way to San Clemente. During the Watergate investigation, Miller had represented Dick Moore, a lawyer in the Nixon White House who had been subpoenaed to testify before congressional committees investigating Watergate.

Miller was chopping wood at his Potomac home in 1974 when a call came from a friend inquiring whether he would represent Nixon. "If I wouldn't represent him," Miller replied, "I would give up my membership in the bar." Miller, who believed lawyers were obligated to represent people in trouble, flew out to San Clemente to meet his new client.

When he had been hired to work with Robert Kennedy, Miller had felt the need to disclose his party affiliation. Now he was so closely identified with the Kennedys that he felt the need to make the opposite disclosure. Didn't President Nixon know that Miller was the attorney for Senator Kennedy?

Nixon replied that he had no concerns about that. Later, when Ethel Kennedy was asked how she felt about the friend of her husband's working for Nixon, she replied, "Isn't Jack Miller the one who does my yard work?"

In Miller's first meetings with the former president, Nixon was adamant that he was innocent--if he were pardoned by President Ford without a trial, he said, his guilt would be assumed for all time. He had hired Miller to fight the allegations against him. As for the words on the tapes, Nixon declared, those were rhetorical statements, questioning statements that should not imply any guilt or conspiracy on his part.

Miller appreciated Nixon's fighting spirit. But he felt compelled to convince the former president that there was no venue in America where he could get a fair trial. Miller became convinced, and was able to convince Nixon, that he could not go to trial.

When Miller returned to Washington after meeting with Nixon, he went to special prosecutor Jaworski and presented him with a memo outlining his certainty that a fair trial for Nixon was impossible. In the course of the conversation, Miller says, he elicited a statement from Jaworksi, which he took as a pledge, that if Nixon were to be pardoned by President Ford, "he [Jaworski] would neither challenge nor criticize it."

Nixon's concern about Jaworski's reaction was the stumbling block to a pardon from President Ford, Miller says. Miller reported his conversation with Jaworski to White House counsel Philip Buchen. "If the president sees fit to pardon the president," Miller said, though he had nothing in writing, "he will not get a blot of criticism from the independent counsel."

A few days after Miller's conversation with Buchen, the pardon was issued.

Miller's work on Nixon's pardon was not his only contact with the ex-president--he became an annual dinner guest at the Nixon home. Says Miller, "He was a gracious host and a brilliant intellect."

He recalls that Nixon took pride in making what he deemed the world's best martini. He used Gordon's gin and made much of the fact that he didn't shake his martinis but stirred them in a very deliberate manner. Contrary to Nixon's public image, Miller found him "friendly and warm."

Another battle on Nixon's behalf involved an issue that lawyers for President Clinton later would handle with much less skill--namely, whether the president could be held civilly liable for acts performed while he was president. The case against Nixon was brought by Ernest Fitzgerald, a Pentagon worker who claimed he was unfairly dismissed from his job because of testimony about cost overruns. The suit found its way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in a 5-to-4 decision that Nixon was indeed immune from suits. •

Miller also represented Nixon in a decades-long legal quest to preserve Nixon's personal papers and tapes for the Nixon family. That case too went to the Supreme Court, but this time Miller lost on a 7-to-2 vote. The only solace Nixon got from the court was an order that recordings of private and personal conversations, as judged by the US archivist, be returned to the family.

In June 2000, Miller won $18 million in compensation for the Nixon family for personal and family tapes that the government never returned, but he still fumes that the Clinton Justice Department refused to return them on grounds that excising the material would destroy the tapes. It rankles Miller that every day, people are listening to Nixon's personal thoughts at the US Archives.

"Even the Supreme Court in ruling against us said it was concerned about his privacy right. Now they've [the tapes] all become public, and you're damn right it's a violation of the right of privacy."

By the early 1980s Williams & Connolly, much to Edward Bennett Williams's dissatisfaction, had begun to grow. Large firms from Chicago, New York, and Houston were arriving in Washington. Some, like Houston's Baker Botts, came with just a few lawyers to serve existing clients from their oil-patch base. Starting out as a regulatory practice, a firm would add a lobbying arm and eventually some securities lawyers to practice at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Because the practice of law has economies of scale, smaller firms began feeling the competition from the big guys. About this time, law-firm partners' earnings began to be ferreted out and published in the nascent legal press.

The word of the moment in the legal world was "leveraging," which meant that the more work a partner could shift to his young associates, who were being paid much less than their hourly billable rate, the more money the partner, who was scooping up the difference, would make. At many firms the most successful partners no longer performed much legal work. They spent their days "making rain"--attracting clients with work that could be done by associates. As one firm leader observed, clients were generally too unsophisticated to evaluate the quality of the work anyway.

Miller Cassidy would have none of it. In 1987 Miller took up the defense of former Reagan chief of staff Michael Deaver, who had been accused by special counsel Whitney North Seymour of committing perjury during the Reagan administration. It was a highly charged political case that landed in the courtroom of US District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson.

Along with partner Randall Turk, Miller made a novel opening argument, one that colleagues felt was fraught with risk. He said that Mr. Deaver couldn't remember many of the activities for which he had been charged because he was an alcoholic.

Then Miller made a tactical decision not to present a defense against the allegations. It was his way of signaling to the jury that he believed the charge against his client was petty and punitive. If the special counsel actually had "a shred of evidence," Miller declared in a stinging final argument, he would have indicted Deaver for illegal lobbying, not for lying about it.

When the jury came back on December 16, 1987, after an eight-week trial, it at first appeared that Miller had made a monumental mistake. Deaver was found guilty of three counts of lying under oath and would soon face the possibility of serving 15 years in prison.

Deaver had long ago run out of money with which to pay Miller, but cash didn't drive a defense at Miller Cassidy the way it might at a big firm. Jack Miller didn't care whether Deaver could pay. He would keep fighting until the verdict was reversed.

The following summer, after enduring months of criticism, Miller had his day when Judge Jackson sentenced Deaver to probation. A few short years later, Deaver was back as one of the most successful lobbyists in town. Later Deaver--now international vice chair for Edelman Public Relations Worldwide--would represent, among other clients, Microsoft, which was being threatened with breakup by the same judge who had been so kind to Deaver 14 years earlier.

The Deaver case marked the end of an era for Miller and the elite criminal-defense firms as big firms began assembling their own criminal-law departments. One of the theories of the megafirm was that it could become a one-stop shop, reducing overhead by increasing size and spreading the costs of libraries and equipment and office space over more and more lawyers. The trend was best illustrated by Skadden Arps, a New York corporate firm that had made its name in mergers and acquisitions. In the aftermath of the Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken scandals, more and more Wall Streeters began worrying about criminal actions. Instead of referring their clients to specialty firms like Miller's, in February 1990 Skadden Arps hired one of Washington's best-known criminal lawyers, Robert Bennett. After that there was no need to refer as much work Miller Cassidy's way.

"That was the biggest change that took place in the legal business," Miller says. "It made it much harder to get business." But Miller had taken Williams's advice to heart--perhaps too much so. He refused to "leverage" his firm. Miller Cassidy always had more partners than associates, exactly the opposite of the model being promoted by experts in law-firm management.

Miller Cassidy was picky about whom it hired. Many of the young lawyers it took on were former Supreme Court clerks attracted not by the firm's pay schedule, which was behind the curve, but by the ethos of the place. One of the young stars was Bill Jeffress, a former clerk who quickly became one of the top criminal lawyers in Washington. Jeffress was articulate and smart, and it didn't seem to matter to him that he could have doubled his $450,000-a-year compensation by going to a bigger firm. Bennett, for example, had doubled his draw to an estimated $1.2 million a year at Skadden.

Jeffress was joined in the late 1970s by two other top hires, Jamie Gorelick and Seth Waxman. Gorelick, a talented Harvard Law grad with a knack for networking, quickly established herself as perhaps the most influential female attorney in Washington. Yale Law graduate Waxman was a former clerk to and disciple of legendary federal judge Gerhard Gesell. Along with Jeffress, who had been a clerk to Judge Gesell and to Justice Potter Stewart, they formed an impressive triumvirate of young lawyers.

With the three young lawyers, and with Miller and Cassidy at the top, throughout the '80s the firm ranked second to none--not even Williams & Connolly--in terms of legal talent and brainpower. In a sense, Miller had built what Williams & Connolly had been a decade earlier, when Ed Williams had worked with a handful of stars like Sullivan, Vincent Fuller, David Kendall, and Robert Barnett.

Miller couldn't have been prouder of his staffers. In 1993 he was thrilled when Gorelick announced that she was leaving to be deputy attorney general under Janet Reno; it was a position more powerful even than the job Miller had held under Robert Kennedy. A year later President Clinton named Waxman to a high Justice Department post and then in 1997 elevated him to solicitor general.

The ascension of two bright legal talents was a boon for Miller Cassidy's reputation--except that its reputation didn't need burnishing. What it needed, with the big firms referring less and less work, was Gorelick and Waxman out beating the bushes to attract new clients. Jeffress had been busy for years defending the American Broadcasting Company against a suit brought by Food Lion alleging fraud, trespass, and other improprieties in the making of a PrimeTime exposé on food-handling and labor pra ctices at the Southern supermarket chain. The 1997 jury verdict socking ABC with $5.5 million in punitive damages had triggered more years of time-consuming appeals.

By early last year, Miller and Cassidy realized that they had a decision to make. Partners like Jeffress were getting offers of double what he was making. Legal headhunters love to "cherry-pick"--to take the stars from firms like Miller Cassidy.

Jeffress remained true to the firm and its ideals; he rejected offers and stayed on. But Miller wondered how much sacrifice he could ask his lawyers to make. He was now 76 years old. Cassidy was 70.

Cassidy decided that the firm had three alternatives. It could disband, it could fire some lawyers and get even smaller and tighter, or it could merge with a larger firm. The partners gathered in Cassidy's office and made a decision: Nobody was going to be fired. They would give up their identity as Miller Cassidy, but they would stay together.

"It was going to be all or none," Miller says. "We all believed that Miller Cassidy was the best place in the world to practice law, and even if we were going to have to merge, the consensus was that we would go in a group." As the merger idea gained steam, Miller would joke, "We are all going to hang together, hopefully not like Nathan Hale."

Baker Botts was founded in Houston in 1840, and the great-grandfather of former Secretary of State James Baker put his name on the firm in 1872. Both the legendary Washington operator Jim Baker and his son James Baker IV appear on its roster. With 56 lawyers in Washington, it had reserved two floors in the Warner Building but didn't yet have litigation and trial practices to compete with other firms. Miller Cassidy presented a chance to change that overnight.

According to Baker Botts partner Bruce Kiely, the two firms began negotiations last summer, then continued them off and on until the end of the year. By this time, with the publicity Baker Botts had gotten for its representation of George W. Bush in the Florida election fight, the firm figured to be a major player in Washington. Partners on both sides voted to put their practices together.

For the Texas firm, the acquisition of Miller Cassidy was a legal coup. For the Miller Cassidy team, it offered the best hope for holding their collegiality together. Only two of its 35 lawyers declined to go to Baker Botts. One of those, Scott Nelson, had a client conflict. The other, Nathan Lewin, decided to fulfill a long-desired wish to practice with his daughter Alyza; they have joined the DC office of a Boston firm, Mintz Levin.

For the others, the future will be a test. Says Cassidy, who was lead negotiator for his firm: "All we know is we are going to try to see if we can maintain it. Many of us don't have a clue as to what a big firm is like. Right now we are just trying to figure out how to use the damn telephones."

Cassidy says that Baker Botts has promised a certain level of autonomy, perhaps deference, to Miller Cassidy's traditions. "They have told Jack and me that we can do as we please in deciding who we represent and what we bill, just as we always have."

Baker Botts partner Kiely downplays the possibility that Miller Cassidy can maintain its own traditions, emphasizing that the firm now is part of Baker Botts. "I don't think they are going to be autonomous. They are committed to the same emphasis on business development and client relations that we are," he says, echoing the kind of legalspeak pervasive in big-law-firm culture.

The loss of Miller Cassidy is felt nowhere as intently as at Williams & Connolly, which saw in Miller Cassidy a reflection of itself in a different time and era, when law was a profession and not a business.

"The disappearance of Miller Cassidy is a real tragedy," says Williams & Connolly partner Robert Barnett. "Over the years they have had some of the best lawyers in the city. It was a wonderful, first-rate firm, the likes of which will never be seen again."

As for Jack Miller, he seems comfortable surrounded by the axes and pictures and paintings that hung in his old office on M Street. "We tried to do what was best for the younger partners and the people that we have been responsible for," he says. "What happens will be up to them."

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