March 29, 2020

Monetizing government positions

       A reader asked me how I came to join O’Melveny. So I thought I'd do a post on that, as it also offers a segue to another topic I have been meaning to write about. I came to O'Melveny through a relationship with a former professor, Ted McAniff. When he offered me the chance to work with him, I jumped at it. Imagine everything you would learn and the opportunities you would get at such a prestigious organization. I was excited.

       But things weren't as I imagined. The practice had little going on. The best way to explain this is via a few anecdotes, to give you a feeling for what it was like. 

       Because the practice had little actual work, one of the tasks he gave me was to get up at 5AM every day and read hundreds of pages of cases and releases that came out the prior night, and send an email to the firm summarizing new developments. I did this for years.

       In one call, our practice head noted how busy attorneys were on a case that had recently settled. I don't know anything about the case, but I remember how a partner immediately cut in to say, “I tried to cancel the settlement,” or something like that. I hope she was joking but imagine even thinking of sabotaging a settlement that the parties had agreed to, so that you can bill more hours and make more money. That's how it was in the practice. A year or so prior, she had seemingly pushed out half a dozen attorneys, when work slowed down on a matter she took over. I googled them just now and most don't appear to be working in law anymore.

       I remember during one lunch, an associate from another practice accused me of making more money than they did and, implicitly, of taking work they could be doing. I didn't. I was under a unique compensation structure where I made less than all of them, and don't think I was taking their work, but I stayed quiet and didn't say anything. When I told Ted about this, he responded that he was sorry that the office was in such terrible shape.

       A particularly low point came when the practice’s marketing manager called me to ask where Ted was. I happened to know he was at his second home in another state, and offered that residence's phone number. The manager told me to call Ted for him, to ask about our ability to assist on the bank regulatory aspects of a deal. So I did, only to have Ted scream at me at the top of his lungs. Something about how, if I’m taking these kinds of calls, then he’s not going to have anything to do. I think he was accusing me of taking his job as the person who takes internal calls on bank regulatory matters. It’s rare to hear a man use all of his vocal cords in the way he did. I've never heard a man really yell like that, outside of movies. I felt so sorry for Ted. The bank regulatory practice was so dead that I had never gotten more than one hundred hours of billable work from him per year, despite being the only junior in his group. And here he was screaming at me over a project that ultimately resulted in about thirty hours

       No, Ted wasn't the prestigious bearer of opportunities I imagined. I remember a deal where we had to write a one-page letter to attach to the main document. I wrote the first draft for him. At a lunch, as lawyers from other practices were talking about their matters, he chimed in to claim he had been working late on the letter for weeks. Of course I didn't say anything. But the partner on the matter started chuckling through his nose and shaking his head while straining to keep his lips sealed. This partner had warned me about Ted, telling me stories about how he behaved, e.g. towards an associate who ran off to another firm, or even towards Ted's own children. Actually, multiple people told me the story about his children. Or there was the day I was sitting in my office working on something from another group. Ted yelled down the hall at a retired partner, "what are you doing on this floor?" The retired partner replied in a deadpan and annoyed tone, "what are you doing in the building?" A minute later, an irritated Ted was in my office lecturing me with another lesson on how to be a good lawyer. I just stayed quiet knowing he was trying to recover from what just happened. 

       When I started, there was one other associate in the group, Bimal Patel. As you would expect in a slow practice, he too had a “hunger games” mentality. But he also had a shrewd plan to milk what little nutrient there was in this turnip. He left for a government job. His business model was to “monetize” government experience. The idea was to get potential clients to think you had insider knowledge about how regulators worked, or perhaps even special relationships with government officials -- so that clients would hire you over another lawyer. It’s right out of stereotypes of the third world, where those with special access to government get privileges that others do not. Imagine that, two Americans in an identical situation, treated differently by the law because one has the right connections to government and the other does not. I wrote the Senate about Bimal when I heard he had returned to government, and even got a response from a Senator (pp. 1, 2, 3, 4). There's not much more one can do about these things.

       And it wasn’t just Bimal. Here's a link to an interview with another government attorney who joined O’Melveny. He claims he can offer more to clients, because he knows the people at the Department of Justice: “I think it's invaluable to have an understanding of how the Justice Department works in order to represent clients . . . I think it’s helpful to know who the people are that are doing the investigation, what they’re thinking about, and what their concerns are.” I don't know this attorney and have never met him, so I don't want to ascribe too much meaning to his quote. Maybe I misunderstand.

       But monetizing government work might not be that easy. There was an Obama administration official, Danielle Gray, who came back to O’Melveny in 2014. She was important, and she even had her own Wikipedia page. I remember an Associate excitedly talking about how powerful she was, and how she could use her connections to President Obama to get you a job where you’d ride on Air Force One. Everyone was so impressed by her and seemingly eager to use her to advance themselves. 

       In the first department meeting, she lamented that she had no paying work, just pro bono matters. I later read that she got staffed on the revolting rape case I wrote about here, and that she ultimately left O’Melveny. In hindsight, all of this should have been predictable. O’Melveny’s partners appeared to be in a battle for "margin." Such people would not care that you were Mr. or Ms. Muckety Muck. They weren't going to give you any of the margin they had fought so hard for. 

       And it's a crowded field. For example, Lisa Monaco, another O'Melveny partner, has three irons in the fire. One at O'Melveny, one at her own firm of LOM Strategies, and another at WestExec Advisors. WestExec is named after the exclusive-access street adjacent to the White House, and its website offers dozens of former government officials touting their government experience and hoping you send them billable work. [Addendum: In July of 2020, a member of WestExec actually bragged to the press about the money they expect to make via their connections to the Biden administration.] 

       Any way. I have other stories and could go on and on about this. But I’ll leave it here. Hopefully this is enough to help you make a more informed decision. Please be careful with the sparkle of “prestige.” There may not be much substance there. Similarly, if you have a job in government that you like, where you have the honor and privilege of serving the country, please be careful when being lured by the promise of money from O’Melveny. 
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