In many ways, WilmerHale partner Jamie Gorelick has had the ultimate Washington legal career. She’s now a litigator at one of the District’s most prestigious law firms, but she’s also held several prominent government roles. She was general counsel at the Department of Defense and then deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration. The well-known Democrat even served under former President George W. Bush as a member of the 9/11 Commission.
Recently Gorelick has been in the news for her defense of BP against legal claims stemming from the Gulf oil spill. She has also been mentioned as a possible contender to replace FBI director Robert Mueller when his term expires in September.
But in Washingtonian.com’s interview with Gorelick—which took place before the FBI-director speculation began—she said she’s “not particularly hungry” to return to government service. She also discusses facing off against her friend attorney general Eric Holder in the BP matter and what it was like to review Bush’s confidential daily briefs during her time on the 9/11 Commission.
How did you end up in Washington?
I grew up in New York and most naturally was going to return. I had a professor [at Harvard Law], Alan Dershowitz, who in essence said, “You belong in Washington.” He arranged for me to have an interview with Edward Bennett Williams at the beginning of my second year. [The firm now called] Williams & Connolly didn’t have a summer program, but I was hired to work there in the summer, and I found I loved Washington.
What was it like as a woman lawyer in the 1970s?
It was challenging. I was the first woman in my law firm [Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin], and I was the only woman for quite a while. The area of practice I had chosen, litigation with a specialty in white-collar criminal defense, was almost entirely male.
We represented NASCAR, and Bill France Sr., the founder, and Bill France Jr., his son and the past leader of NASCAR, used to compete to see who could tell me the grossest joke.
I worked on a case with [Miller, Cassidy name partner] Nat Lewin in which a retired judge from a Wall Street law firm was representing the company and we were representing the CEO, and this very senior lawyer would never address me directly. I don’t know if that was because I was a woman or because I was junior, but he directed all questions to Nat. There were things like that, but you had to have a sense of humor.
You’ve worked in a number of other male-dominated settings, such as the Department of Defense. Can you describe those experiences?
My gender was definitely noticed in every job that I was in, in every setting that I’ve been in. I think that’s true for all women lawyers and women professionals. I’ve chosen to work in very male-dominated areas, like defense and national security, like law enforcement, like litigation, like corporate boards, because I find them interesting. Again, you have to have a sense of humor. I knew that I had arrived at the Pentagon when my requests started to be answered, “Yes, sir.” The automatic response to authority in the military environment was “Yes, sir.” The first time someone said “Yes, sir,” I knew they were saluting what I wanted them to do. It was a completely spontaneous response.
How do you build a case for a client like BP that’s up against a negative public perception?
I’ve been doing this exact thing since 1975. You have to enjoy long odds. You have to enjoy trying to right the system, in that the government and Congress, the executive branch, the press have enormous power to bring criticism to bear and to sue, to indict—and often the case is overstated. The obligation of someone representing an individual or a company in those circumstances is to make sure that the other side of the argument is heard and that the result is fair. I enjoy that.
Attorney general Eric Holder is somebody who you’ve worked with, and now you’re on opposite sides of the Justice Department’s actions against BP. What’s that like?
The attorney general was US Attorney when I was deputy attorney general, and we’ve been very good friends ever since. It’s been purely professional. We like and respect each other. We see each other all the time. I know his deputy and his associate attorney general from other lives. They expect me to do my job. I expect them to do their job, but all of our communications are characterized by mutual respect.
Can you talk about your time on the 9/11 Commission?
That was the deepest, broadest look at the workings of the US government ever. It may never be repeated. We had 18 months to look across government and how it addressed a challenge, so I learned a lot substantively. We also, though appointed by a process that was highly partisan, came together unanimously around our report. If I never have another bit of government service, I’ll be satisfied by the pieces of service that I’ve had, including that one.
Was there a particularly challenging moment of your time on the commission?
The commission felt that it needed access to the presidential daily briefs, which are among the most protected pieces of information within our government. These are reports that go to the President and very few other advisers. The White House, for understandable reasons, didn’t want to give us access to them, and we felt we couldn’t make a report without that access. Brokering that access was critical then to the success of the commission’s work. We did that by offering to have the daily briefs reviewed by me and Phil Zelikow, the executive director of the commission. We had to, in essence, do this review for the entire commission and explain to the commission what we had seen while not taking any notes out of the room in which we had seen them. It was very challenging and, I think, critical to our success.
What’s next for you? Would you rule out another government position?
I’m not particularly hungry to go into the government. Unlike most Democrats, my last government service ended in 2005 with the 9/11 Commission, so I was in essence in public service through a Republican administration. And I’m enjoying private practice a lot. I have wonderful colleagues. I’ve got great cases. I have tremendous autonomy, superb support, and it’d be hard to imagine a more interesting job than the one I have. I’ve never tried to predict what I’m going to do next, but my plan is to be in private practice.