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When Opportunity Knock$

By Megan Kinneyn | Jun. 2, 2007
News

Law Office Management

Jun. 2, 2007

When Opportunity Knock$

In the wake of Enron and other corporate scandals, defense firms have become more aggressive about trying to entice federal prosecutors to switch sides. The money in the private sector is certainly a big incentive, but there are other reasons as well. We talk to ten veteran prosecutors who made the jump. By Kelly Niknejad

By Kelly Niknejad
     
      Ten former federal prosecutors talk about life in the private sector.
     
      This spring, much of the news coming out of Washington focused on the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys and how the Department of Justice may have been politicized. In the long run, though, the question plaguing the DOJ will not be about the firings. Rather, it will be how to retain qualified prosecutors.
      It's a problem, of course, because the private sector pays so much better than the government does. And these days, with so many companies in legal trouble, the job market for DOJ-savvy fixers could hardly be better. At the high end of the salary spectrum, John C. Hueston, who investigated Enron at the DOJ, reportedly negotiated a $1.5 million to $2 million compensation package when he joined Irell & Manella. Debra Wong Yang, the former U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, also did extremely well when she joined Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
      Still, former prosecutors can be coy about the influence of bigger bucks on their decision. Among the ten we recently spoke with (who made the jump before the firings scandal drew media attention), most cited the different pace and new intellectual opportunities as their main reasons for leaving the DOJ.
      However, there were those who admitted that the intoxicating allure of new challenges and professional development was only part of the story. When asked, for example, to rank the importance of money in her decision to leave, on a one-to-ten scale, Yang replied, "Ten. I won't lie to you."
     
      Leslie R. Caldwell
      Former job: Assistant U.S. Attorney, Northern District of California, San Francisco
      Age: 49
      Years in public service: 17
      Highest-profile case: Director of the DOJ Enron Task Force.
      Favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "The freedom to pursue the cases of your choice."
      Least favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "I don't miss my salary. But that's not why I left."
      Proudest accomplishment at DOJ: Creating the Securities Fraud Section in San Francisco.
      New firm: Joined Morgan Lewis as a partner in New York and San Francisco (fall 2004).
      Favorite thing about current job: The challenge.
      Least favorite thing about current job: "There's a lot of one-off stuff?you do good work for a client, and then his parting words are, 'Thanks, I hope I never see you again.' Because even if you do a good job, these are not good times in their lives."
      Recent case: Caldwell was general counsel to a former executive of Monster Worldwide who pleaded guilty in February to stock options?related fraud and conspiracy charges.
      On transition to private practice: "I have to roll up my sleeves a lot more, because clients hire you to do things, and you have to have a much more granular level of knowledge."
      On departing the DOJ: Caldwell says she had been contemplating going into private practice for at least five years. "Interesting new assignments kept coming up that I couldn't say no to."
      Ranking (on a one-to-ten scale) of money as a motivator in leaving public sector: 3
     
     
      William W. Carter
      Former job: Assistant U.S. Attorney, Central District of California, Los Angeles
      Age: 49
      Years in public service: 22
      Highest-profile cases: Obtained guilty verdicts in three of the largest ocean-dumping cases, including a $37 million penalty against Overseas Shipholding Group; also was one of the lead prosecutors in the LAPD Rampart police-corruption scandal of the late 1990s.
      Favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "Your job was to find the truth, and hopefully find justice. In doing so, there were no limits."
      Least favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "Your work was cut out for you, but it was also sometimes limiting."
      Proudest accomplishment as a prosecutor: Before serving in the U.S. Attorney's office, Carter was a deputy DA in Los Angeles and helped prosecute a company that allowed a huge chlorine-gas leak in East Los Angeles. But the best part of the case, he says, was being able to use a portion of the fine money to start scholarship funds at five local high schools.
      New firm: Joined Musick, Peeler & Garrett as a partner in Los Angeles (November 2006).
      Recent cases: Representing school districts in environmental cost-recovery actions, making sure schools are being built on clean sites.
      Favorite thing about current job: "I feel more connected to the community now. Before, I had to keep a distance from the community so as not to create the perception of bias."
      Least favorite thing about current job: The lack of authority to resolve factual conflicts or gaps in information, such as with a grand jury subpoena. "In the private sector, you don't have that power. It's not very efficient."
      Ranking (on a one-to-ten scale) of money as a motivator in leaving public sector: 2
     
      John S. Gordon
      Former job: U.S. Attorney, 2001?02 (interim appointment), Central District of California, Los Angeles
      Age: 49
      Years in public service: 19
      Highest-profile cases: Indicted two leaders of the Jewish Defense League in connection with a plot to blow up a Los Angeles area mosque and the local office of Congressman Darrell Issa. Prosecuted a number of members of the Russian Mafia who kidnapped affluent Russian immigrants in Los Angeles and then extorted money from their families and friends. Also investigated Credit Lyonnais and other institutions suspected of committing fraud in connection with the 1991 sale of now-defunct Executive Life Insurance Co.
      Favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "A steady diet of playing cops and robbers. I like the human drama of misdeeds."
      Least favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "Sometimes the Department of Justice imposes priorities that you flatly disagree with. They'll tell you to prosecute medical marijuana and pornography cases when there are more important things to do."
      New firm: Joined Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges as a partner in Los Angeles (September 2002).
      Favorite thing about current job: The challenge and the variety.
      Least favorite thing about current job: "Trying to chase business. I always suspected I wouldn't like it."
      Recent case: As of March, involved in the KPMG criminal tax-shelter investigation in New York.
      On transition to private practice: "It's more varied and dynamic. It's also a much bigger ocean. Federal court is a very small pond."
      Ranking (on a one-to-ten scale) of money as a motivator in leaving public sector: 5
     
      Melinda Haag
      Former job: Assistant U.S. Attorney, Northern District of California, San Francisco
      Age: 45
      Years in public service: 10
      Highest-profile case: Lead prosecutor in trial of guards at Pelican Bay State Prison who were convicted of civil rights violations for abuses of inmates.
      Favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "You have almost all of the power, and you get to do what you think is right."
      Least favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "The day of sentencing. It's a difficult thing to watch someone be led off in handcuffs and know they'll spend their lives in prison."
      Proudest accomplishment at DOJ: The conviction of the Pelican Bay guards. "Most law enforcement agents do the right thing. The tiny minority of law enforcement agents who abuse their positions bring dishonor on everybody, and they shouldn't be allowed to be law enforcement officers."
      New firm: Joined Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe as a partner in San Francisco (October 2003).
      Favorite thing about current job: "In private practice you represent people. As a federal prosecutor, you don't have a client in the classic sense of the word."
      Least favorite thing about current job: Billing time, in tenths of an hour.
      Ranking (on a one-to-ten scale) of money as a motivator in leaving public sector: 2
     
      Brian Hershman
      Former job: Assistant U.S. Attorney, Central District of California, Los Angeles
      Age: 39
      Years in public service: 7
      Highest-profile case: Lead prosecutor in the BALCO grand jury leak investigation.
      Favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "Uniformly, day in and day out, you were working with people of exceptional ability."
      Least favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "If anything, just the money. I pretty much loved every day."
      Proudest accomplishment at DOJ: Along with fellow then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Alicia Villarreal, prosecuting Lynne Meredith in the We The People tax scam. For his work on the case, Hershman received the Director's Award for Superior Performance as an Assistant U.S. Attorney from the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys.
      New firm: Joined Jones Day, of counsel, in Los Angeles (November 2006).
      Least favorite thing about current job: Billable hours.
      On transition to private practice: "It's very different. When you're a prosecutor, you hold a lot of the cards. When you're in the defense, you hold very few cards. Pretending you have a full house when you have five different cards is tough."
      On the current exodus of U.S. Attorneys to private practice: "It's all cyclical. Six years from now, maybe there will be another huge exodus. It's not really any deeper than that. The U.S. Attorneys I worked with were excellent. There will always be a demand for attorneys with those skills."
      Ranking (on a one-to-ten scale) of money as a motivator in leaving public sector: 8
     
      John C. Hueston
      Former job: Assistant U.S. Attorney, Central District of California, Los Angeles
      Age: 43
      Years in public service: 12
      Highest-profile case: As the lead prosecutor on the Enron Task Force, Hueston helped convict former Enron executives Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay.
      Favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "Personally representing the United States of America was a thrill that never diminished."
      Least favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "Over time, it was harder to find new and different challenges."
      Proudest accomplishment at DOJ: "The convictions of Skilling and Lay. That was the capstone to my career and a signal that I needed to move on."
      New firm: Joined Irell & Manella as a partner in Los Angeles and Newport Beach (November 2006).
      Favorite thing about current job: "There are a whole diversity of trial opportunities in different fields, and I've enjoyed that."
      Least favorite thing about current job: Billable hours.
      Recent cases: Currently representing the Navajo Nation on uranium-contamination issues on the reservation; also representing one of the former founders of MySpace.com in possible upcoming litigation. In addition, he is working on a major stock options?backdating investigation. Earlier, Hueston was a consultant to NBC during its litigation with the former writers and executive producers of the television show Will and Grace.
      On transition to private practice: "I found the transition to be easier than expected because I had been on the Enron Task Force for years, and during those years I worked with defense lawyers on complicated and involved issues. I developed an appreciation and understanding of their practice."
      What he misses most about being an assistant U.S. Attorney: "I'm not yet missing anything about the public sector."
      Ranking (on a one-to-ten scale) of money as a motivator in leaving public sector: 2?3
     
      Ross W. Nadel
      Former job: Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, San Francisco
      Age: 55
      Years in public service: 27
      Highest-profile cases: Ran the gamut from a brutal murder committed in the Presidio of San Francisco in 1988 to convictions of a ring of Ming-vase counterfeiters and, later, the first economic-espionage case that went to trial in the United States.
      Favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "Along with the intellectual challenge, doing justice, and never having to do something that wasn't the right thing."
      Least favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "I didn't get joy in seeing people going to prison."
      Proudest accomplishment at DOJ: Founded the Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property (CHIP) unit, the first unit in any U.S. Attorney's office dedicated exclusively to the investigation and prosecution of high-tech crimes.
      New firm: Joined Cooley Godward Kronish as a partner in San Francisco (March 2006).
      Favorite thing about current job: Counseling clients who have been the victims of white-collar crimes and helping them to decide whether to bring their cases to law enforcement agencies. (Says his contacts and credibility with federal agencies and the U.S. Attorney's office helps.)
      Least favorite thing about current job: "The business side?promotion, marketing, and keeping track of your time. In public practice, the focus was more on your work product rather than specific hours."
      On transition to private practice: Nadel searched out a firm that he liked and whose practice areas jibed with his experience. "The financial side was a factor, but not the only one. My career decisions have been based on what I thought was interesting and contributed to the community."
      Ranking (on a one-to-ten scale) of money as a motivator in leaving public sector: 3
     
      David W. Shapiro
      Former job: U.S. Attorney, 2001?02 (interim appointment), Chief of Criminal Division, San Francisco
      Age: 52
      Years in public service: 16
      Highest-profile cases: Prosecuted one of the first federal death penalty cases, against a member of the Mafia; opened the investigation into Enron's financial accounting fraud in 2000.
      Favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "Bringing a sense of fairness and judgment to cases?something I now, unfortunately, don't see a lot of with the prosecutors I deal with. They seem to be more interested in indicting people on clever theories than on indicting people who have clearly committed crimes."
      New firm: Joined Boies, Schiller & Flexner as a partner in Oakland (September 2002).
      Favorite thing about current job: The adversarial processes of the profession, such as going to trial.
      Least favorite thing about current job: The frustratingly slow pace of civil cases.
      Recent cases: Represents Tyco International in its multidistrict securities-fraud litigation; represents Fidelity National Financial in several commercial-litigation cases, including a civil RICO case; represented the San Francisco Chronicle and two of its reporters in the criminal investigation of the leak of grand jury transcripts; represents potential class members in a civil RICO case brought against Quixtar (the successor to Amway).
      On transition to private practice: "I think I'm pretty good at sizing up when my client has done wrong. 'Wrong' can mean a whole range of things. You can make mistakes and be wrong, and you can have a criminal intent and be wrong. So I don't simply say that every person I represent never did anything wrong. But on the other hand, I don't think the government always gets it right either."
      Ranking (on a one-to-ten scale) of money as a motivator in leaving public sector: 5
     
      Alicia Villarreal
      Former job: Assistant U.S. Attorney, Central District of California, Los Angeles
      Age: 45
      Years in public service: 14
      Highest-profile case: Prosecuted Lynne Meredith, who cosponsored the We The People tax scam.
      Favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: Upholding the Constitution of the United States.
      New firm: Joined Morgan Lewis & Bockius as a partner in Los Angeles (January 2007).
      Favorite thing about current job: "The freedom to do work in the community. I couldn't as a U.S. Attorney because of the appearance of conflicts of interest."
      On transition to private practice: "There is no real difference in the number of hours I put in. One thing, though, I do find different in private practice is that there's much more travel."
      What she misses most about being a prosecutor: "Working with the federal agents and the federal attorneys. The federal family is a wonderful, widespread family and a network of resources."
      Ranking (on a one-to-ten scale) of money as a motivator in leaving public sector: 3
     
      Debra Wong Yang
      Former job: U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, Los Angeles
      Age: 47
      Years in public service: 17
      Highest-profile cases: Prosecuted Boeing, Tenet Healthcare, Credit Lyonnais, and Ralphs grocery store chain for corporate fraud; also brought an indictment against Milberg Weiss for allegedly illegal kickbacks spanning a 25-year period.
      Favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "I was surrounded by brilliant, selfless lawyers. It's an inspiring place to work."
      Least favorite thing about being a federal prosecutor: "Not having the ability to develop more programs in certain areas of crime. There are only so many resources to go around in public practice."
      New firm: Joined Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as a partner in Los Angeles (January 2007).
      Favorite thing about current job: "I have a great deal of respect for people who are trying to run their businesses and understand the law."
      Recent cases: Involved in a variety of areas, including copyright infringement, white-collar issues, and crisis management. "I'm interested in all of it. I'm not specialized in a particular area, but in handling big problems."
      On being a lawyer: "I didn't have a burning passion to be a lawyer. I actually went to law school thinking I would use it ultimately to go into some sort of business. But once I got in, I liked it and stayed with it."
      Ranking (on a one-to-ten scale) of money as a motivator in leaving public sector: 10
     
      Kelly Niknejad (kelly.niknejad@gmail.com) is a freelance journalist based in London. Research editor Eamon Kircher-Allen assisted with reporting this story.
     
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Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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