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The inauguration of president elect Donald Trump is a topic that reaches pretty much every aspect of life, something that is apparent in this comment from one Washington legal market specialist: “I was talking to my therapist last Friday and she told me that every one of her patients was obsessing with Trump. Nothing is in equilibrium. It’s like Brexit, you simply cannot think of anything else.”
In a week of jam-packed activity when everyone is trying hard to keep up with events while pulling their jaw off the floor at the latest Trump-related twist or tweet, it’s easy to overlook the impact of the Presidential transition on the DC legal market. But there is one.
In fact, traditionally the transition of administrations is one of the most significant events in both the Washington and New York legal markets, as ranks of government lawyers move out of public service and into the private practice market. And, naturally, a similar number make the move in the other direction as the new administration staffs up.
But this administration transition, in so many ways, is different from all previous administration transitions.
As Adam Smith, Esq’s Bruce MacEwen put it earlier this week, “in a normal transition, institutional knowledge and expertise in the interstices of the regulatory agencies is transferable from one President to the next. This time around, no one has the remotest idea whether intimate knowledge of the grainy detail of business government as usual before January 2017 will have real relevance thereafter”.
US legal recruitment consultant Patty Morrisy, managing director at Mlegal, believes that one result of Trump’s shock election victory couple with several other factors may be a saturated market.
“Many government lawyers were surprised by the election result, and thus were caught flat-footed with respect to their job search,” argues Morrisy. “This resulted in a relatively large number of very highly qualified lawyers flooding the market at around the same time, many of whom prefer to remain in DC. Coupled with the dismantling of the Clinton campaign team, where many talented lawyers were working, the market quickly became saturated.”
Morrisy adds that the traditional home to many of these lawyers, private practice firms, may be less open this time around. For one thing, government lawyers do not arrive with a book of business, “they have to build one once on board”, points out Morrisy.
In addition, while it might seem that traditional DC-based firms have their pick of candidates, the volume of partners leaving their firms to work in government is not yet clear, adds Morrisy.
“And lawyers coming out of government positions are not as attractive as they would have been had Clinton won,” she insists. “This is because they will probably not have their own contacts in government who could refer them work. In this sense, their value is diminished.
“Also, firms are being super cautious about adding to their government facing practices. What will happen with respect to business practices under a Trump administration is unpredictable. So again, many firms are taking a wait and see approach.”
Of course, there have been moves. Over the past few months a string of lawyers have moved out of the Obama administration into plum private practice roles.
Washington-based Matthew Solomon, until recently the chief litigation counsel for the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s Enforcement Division, joined Cleary Gottlieb as a partner in January this year.
The firm also hired Alex Janghorbani, formerly a senior trial counsel in the SEC’s New York Regional Office, as a senior attorney in New York.
Whistleblower firm Phillips & Cohen brought in Sean McKessy, the former chief of the SEC Whistleblower Office, as a partner in Washington while in the middle of last year King & Spalding announced that Alec Koch, a former assistant director in the SEC’s Enforcement Division was joining the firm’s Washington office as partner.
The biggest move in the opposite direction came in the first week of 2017, when Trump confirmed he had nominated Sullivan & Cromwell partner Jay Clayton to take over from former Debevoise & Plimpton partner Mary Jo White as chairman of the SEC.
Clearly then it’s not likely to be all doom and gloom. In fact there could be significant upside for a raft of organisations that may pick up former government lawyers.
“Candidates know how saturated the market is and are not taking anything for granted,” confirms Morrisy. “While practising law in a law firm tends to be the first choice among many candidates, they are also exploring working in consulting, banks, think-tanks, NGOs and the like. But those jobs are also not easy to land, so candidates really need to bear down on all types of job searches concurrently.”
As Michael Ellenhorn of corporate intelligence provider Decipher puts it, “the US government is so large that whenever you have a new administration you’ll always have the natural ebb and flow of lawyers coming in or leaving. This is really no different, there are still a load of moves and an incredible amount of talent leaving government. It’s normal.”
Ellenhorn may be right, but to many outside observers, there’s nothing remotely normal about this transition.
As Morrisy puts it, “at some level, everyone is waiting for the dust to settle, and for those candidates who need immediate income post-20 January, the jobs market scenario is indeed unsettling”.
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