News & Politics

How Too Much Money Can Wreck a Law Firm

An inside look at a record year for a K Street firm.

K Street law firm Wiley Rein distributed $260 million last year to partners and employees, but some have started to wonder if their greatest payday—probably the biggest in the history of any Washington firm—could ultimately prove their undoing.

As in the climax of a Victorian novel, might the firm’s newfound wealth lead to its disintegration?

Since the payouts from its share of a BlackBerry lawsuit windfall were made, at least five Wiley partners have left the firm. Among them was former name partner Fred Fielding, who went to work at the White House in February; John Bartlett decided to retire after turning 65 in June.

The latest to go is Barbara Van Gelder, an ace criminal-defense lawyer known around town as “Biz.” It has been an apt nickname—Van Gelder has rung up a steady stream of profitable clients including former FDA commissioner Lester Crawford, who was accused of owning stocks of companies regulated by his agency, and David Safavian, the former GSA chief of staff, eventually convicted of making false statements in the Jack Abramoff investigation.

Van Gelder surprised the law community by jumping to Morgan Lewis, a Philadelphia-based international firm. Van Gelder says she needed a firm with more offices in more cities to accommodate her expanding practice. The other two partners to depart were Greg Vogt and Jeff Linder.

Firm cofounder Richard Wiley says the only departure related to the BlackBerry settlement was that of Linder. Feeling he is set for life financially, Linder will become a teacher at the Levine School of Music. Wiley has brought in former BellSouth general counsel Bennett Ross to replace Linder in the firm’s telecommunications practice.

“Biz’s departure is totally unrelated” to the BlackBerry settlement, Wiley says, adding, “Not counting BlackBerry, the firm is having its best year ever.”

This article can be found in the October 2007 issue of Washingtonian Magazine.