Washington Lawyer

Legends in the Law: Philip Allen Lacovara

From Washington Lawyer, January 2005

Interview by Tim Wells

Photo of Philip Allen Lacovara by Gary SpectorPhilip Allen Lacovara is currently senior counsel with the law firm of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP in New York. A 1966 graduate of Columbia Law School, Lacovara has served in numerous capacities in government, private practice, and private business, including law clerk to Judge Harold Leventhal of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, deputy solicitor general, counsel to Watergate special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski, vice president and senior counsel of the General Electric Company, and partner at two law firms.

He has argued more than a dozen cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, including United States v. Nixon in 1974.

Lacovara was president of the District of Columbia Bar for the 1988–89 term and was general counsel to the Bar from 1985 to 1987.

Where did you grow up?
New York. My father was a trusts and estates lawyer in the city, and our family lived in the suburbs, where I went to a Jesuit high school.

When did you first come to Washington?
Nineteen sixty. At my high school it was frowned upon for anyone to even consider going to a non-Catholic college, so I only applied to two colleges: Georgetown and Holy Cross. I chose Georgetown because I was interested in studying political science. It seemed to me that if you’re interested in politics, Washington is where the action is. I arrived on campus in the final year of the Eisenhower administration, when the Nixon–Kennedy campaign was taking place. That was an exciting time to come to town.

Did you enjoy Georgetown?
Yes, I liked it a lot. My situation was a bit complicated because my wife, Madeline, and I got married during my second year at Georgetown. By the time I graduated we already had one child, with a second child on the way. So it was not your normal college experience. I had to juggle the responsibilities of studying with the responsibilities of being a new husband and a new father.

Why did you start so young?
Madeline and I were high school sweethearts. My father had waited until after he graduated from law school to marry my mother, who had been his high school sweetheart as well. They were engaged for five years. Madeline and I decided we weren’t going to wait that long. I remember hearing people say that young marriages never work, and I suppose there are long odds against young marriages. But we’ve been blessed. We have seven children and 12 grandchildren now, and we’ve had a very happy life together.

Did being in Washington during the Kennedy years have an impact on your subsequent career?
Yes, I think so. Our first child was born on October 10, 1962, right as the Cuban missile crisis was beginning to unfold. During the 13 days of the missile crisis, there was a genuine concern that you might go to bed at night and not wake up in the morning because a nuclear attack had been launched from the Soviet Union or Cuba. That was a defining event that deepened my interest in public affairs. I had always assumed that I would follow in my father’s footsteps and go to law school, but after that I began to think about getting a doctorate in political science rather than going to law school. Ultimately, I decided on law school and came back to New York to attend Columbia, but the idea of public service was kept in mind.

You didn’t want to be a trusts and estates lawyer like your dad?
When I was growing up, that had always seemed like a logical progression. In fact, during the summer between my second and third years of law school, I worked for the law firm of Hughes, Hubbard & Reed with a partner who was a prominent leader in the trusts and estates bar. One day he asked me if I wanted to do trusts and estates work. “If you do,” he said, “you’ll be exposed to the worst aspects of human nature: the vindictiveness, the meanness, the pettiness of intrafamily disputes. You’ll see parents disinheriting children and children contesting wills because their siblings got something they think they deserve.” Now that wasn’t the sort of impression I’d gleaned from my father, and it gave me the awareness that trusts and estates could have an occasional sordid element to it. Then, that same summer, I got my first taste of litigation, which I found to be fascinating. I helped prepare a brief in case that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. It was at that point that I began to lean toward litigation.

It would seem the same sort of observation could be made about litigation, because you are always dealing with disputes that can be mean and nasty.
Yes, that’s true. In litigation the disputes can be contentious. But the difference is that in most cases the people who are suing one another are strangers, or businesses, so you don’t have the same element of breach of family relationships that trusts and estates practice can sometimes involve. In most litigation it’s just about the money.

Did law school meet your expectations? Did you feel like you had made the right choice?
Yes. One of the hallmarks of my professional life has been the opportunity to work with truly extraordinary leaders in the profession. At Columbia I had the chance to work as a research assistant for Professor Herbert Wechsler, who was the director of the American Law Institute. Wechsler was working on revisions to the Model Penal Code, which eventually became the principal basis for criminal law reform throughout the United States. That work was heavily dosed with public policy questions and discussions: What are the right kinds of definitions for criminal misbehavior? What are the appropriate standards for criminal culpability? Issues of that sort. Wechsler was a great teacher and a great mentor, and working with him kept my interest in public law very much alive.

Wechsler’s influence was also felt when I graduated. He was a friend of Judge Harold Leventhal of the D.C. Circuit, and when I applied for a clerkship, he gave me a very generous recommendation.

So you returned to Washington?
That’s right. I came back to Washington to clerk for Judge Leventhal, which was one of the milestones of my professional life. Leventhal was one of the great jurists of the 20th century. My clerkship was well before the Court Reorganization Act of 1970 that established a local court system in the District of Columbia. In that era the U.S. Court of Appeals had jurisdiction over regular criminal cases and common law disputes as well as over federal claims. So I worked on an array of cases that ranged from murder and rape all the way to complicated administrative agency cases. It was an intriguing, broadening experience.

What was Leventhal like as a person?
He was an extraordinarily bright, complicated man. A polymath. He could be very acerbic, but he was also a wonderful teacher. He had his law clerks sit at his elbow when he was going over their drafts to show them the value of clarity of expression and subtlety of expression, of making sure that what was said was meant, and what was meant was said. Working with Judge Leventhal was not only a wonderful exercise in legal analysis, it was a great training program in the art of advocacy, which is what writing a judicial opinion is all about. The circulation of a draft opinion is an attempt to convince your colleagues on the bench to join in the opinion, which, if you’re successful, then becomes an attempt to convince the bar and the rest of the bench that the opinion is a sound explication of the law.

After your clerkship, what did you do?
I went to the solicitor general’s office, where I was a special assistant to Thurgood Marshall. As I was finishing up my clerkship, Marshall was nominated to the Supreme Court, but I did have the opportunity to work with him for three or four months. He was one of those larger-than-life characters who taught me a great deal about the human side of the law. Judge Leventhal was extremely cerebral and analytical. Marshall knew the law at a gut level. He saw a human dimension to the law that was always animating.

Of course, prior to becoming solicitor general, Marshall worked on the segregation cases of the 1950s, where he would risk his life by going into the Deep South and taking on those cases in an era when racial violence was not uncommon. Did you sense that he was a man of extraordinary physical courage?
He was an imposing presence, a big bear of a man. When you stood next to Thurgood Marshall, you felt the power emanating from him. Of course, in the solicitor general’s office you didn’t have to worry about physical courage, but we were all aware of his exploits and were familiar with the struggle he had pursued for all of those years.

Did you sense that Marshall liked being a lawyer?
He liked what the law could accomplish. I think he would rather have been dropped down a well than to have been a law professor sitting around writing law review articles. He loved the law, but not as an academic exercise. He loved the law because of what it meant to people, because of what it could accomplish for people. He relished the confrontation, and he took pride in being a zealous advocate. I remember after he became an associate justice on the Court, I had to appear before him in an application in chambers in a terrorism case, and he put me through my paces, even though just a few months earlier I had been his special assistant.

During your time in the solicitor general’s office, did you have the opportunity to actually argue cases before the Court?
Yes, I did. When I arrived in the SG’s office, I was not yet eligible to be admitted to the Supreme Court Bar, because you had to be admitted to practice for three years, and I took the job right after I was admitted to the New York Bar. When Marshall went on to the Court, President Johnson appointed Erwin Griswold to be solicitor general. Griswold didn’t realize how junior I was. I guess he thought that all six assistants in the office were undifferentiated. I was just a year and a half out of law school, and he began assigning me Supreme Court arguments. I was able to get a special leave of court, and I did argue three Supreme Court cases before I decided it was time to get on with my life as a mainstream lawyer.

So you entered private practice?
Right. I joined the firm of Hughes, Hubbard & Reed and began practicing corporate law on Wall Street. To tell you the truth, I found it to be pretty dreadful. I think I was a little too vain. After having argued Supreme Court cases, I didn’t find drafting class action interrogatories all that challenging. So I began casting about. At that time, Mayor John Lindsay was recruiting what his administration called “a talent bank” of young lawyers interested in serving in city government. I was offered the opportunity to work as special counsel to the New York City police commissioner, and I took a leave of absence from my firm and went to work for the New York City Police Department. That was the most fun job of my career, because I had my own radio car, my own gun, and a badge. It was during a time of racial unrest and police corruption, and the commissioner was investigating some very hot issues.

Then, in 1972, Solicitor General Griswold asked me if I’d be interested in returning to Washington as deputy solicitor general in charge of all criminal and internal security cases. That was a difficult decision, because I was having so much fun working with the police commissioner, but after talking it over with my wife, we decided that the deputy solicitor general’s job was just too good to pass up. As fate would have it, accepting that job led to my appointment with the Watergate special prosecutor’s office.

How so?
The Watergate break-in had occurred shortly before I returned to the SG’s office, and an investigation into the alleged coverup had been opened in the Justice Department. In the spring of 1973 Archibald Cox was named special prosecutor. I had never met Cox, but he had been the solicitor general in the Kennedy administration and he thought the SG’s office might provide him with a good talent pool for staffing the Watergate special prosecutor’s office. Helping Cox organize the office was Jim Vorenberg, who was a Harvard law professor who had headed the appointments committee when I was offered an assistant professorship a couple of years earlier. After I met with them, Cox appointed me as counsel to the special prosecutor.

In the summer of 1973 we learned from the testimony of Alexander Butterfield that President Nixon had installed a taping system in the Oval Office and that the president’s conversations had been recorded. Needless to say, that got our attention. Cox and I discussed at great length whether we should try to obtain the tapes as evidence. What would be the consequences for the country of going after the tapes? What would be the consequences of not doing so? What would the courts say? After working through the issues, we decided that we should demand the evidence.

So I sat down and drew up a subpoena, then walked the subpoena over to the White House. Inside I served it on the president’s counsel, Fred Buzhardt. Of course, President Nixon refused to turn over the tapes, and his refusal precipitated the litigation that eventually led to what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” In October 1973 President Nixon ordered Cox to desist from trying to obtain the tapes. Cox refused. The president ordered the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox for insubordination. Richardson refused. He resigned rather than comply with the president’s order, as did the deputy attorney general, Bill Ruckelshaus, who was fired. By this time Robert Bork had become solicitor general, and it was Bork who issued the order to fire Cox.

Did you talk with Bork yourself?
Oh yes. My stint at the solicitor general’s office had briefly overlapped with Bork’s tenure. I was the only person in the Watergate office who knew Bork, so I called him that Saturday night. In our conversation Bork explained that he had not been given any orders to close down the Watergate Special Prosecution Force or to dismiss any of the prosecutors other than Cox. As far as he knew, we were supposed to continue working.

Did you sense that Bork was reluctant to carry out the order to fire Cox?
He was plainly anguished. His explanation was that the president had the constitutional right to do what he was doing. I remember he said, “If I don’t carry out the president’s order after Richardson and Ruckelshaus have refused to do so, no other official in the Justice Department will carry out the order either. That can’t be good for the country.” Bork’s point was that the entire leadership of the Justice Department would have been sacked. I disagreed with his judgment, but I understood that he had a valid point.

What did you do after talking with Bork?
We had a meeting at our offices at which I reported to the staff that Cox had indeed been fired. That was a very emotional meeting. The initial reaction was that we needed to show solidarity. Our leader had been taken from us, and we needed to resign in protest. Henry Ruth, who was the deputy special prosecutor, said, “A mass resignation may make for a grand gesture, but if we have the opportunity to continue the work that Cox hired us to do, our primary responsibility is to carry on.” I agreed with Ruth and joined him in making that argument. I also met with Cox at a farm out in Virginia, and he urged us to stay the course. That was the view that carried the day. We kept the office intact.

The following Monday morning we went to Judge Sirica and got an order protecting our files so that the FBI wouldn’t seize anything. In essence, we were asking Sirica to protect us from the president, and he was willing to do it. Then, during the next few days, what General Haig called “the firestorm of public outrage” forced Nixon to appoint a new special prosecutor. That was when Leon Jaworski came in to take over the investigation.

Was Jaworski able to pick up right where Cox left off?
The first thing Jaworski did was announce that he wanted to keep the entire staff. So that provided for some continuity. But it’s also true that Jaworski was a very different man. Cox was an analytical law professor who wanted to set up a model prosecutor’s office. Cox anguished and deliberated over the constitutional issues that were so visible and controversial. That wasn’t Jaworski’s style. Jaworski was a tough Texas trial lawyer who wanted to push the investigation forward. He brought a new attitude. He came in and said, “Hey, let’s get this job done.”

The question of whether or not the president had to turn over the tapes was decided by the Supreme Court. How was it that you were designated to argue the case before the Court?
Since I had been in the solicitor general’s office, I was regarded as the Supreme Court lawyer. I was the only person in the special prosecutor’s office who had any Supreme Court experience. Initially, Jaworski wanted me to argue the case in its entirety, but I didn’t think that was wise. Jaworski was the special prosecutor, and I told him that the public expected the special prosecutor to argue the case. Jaworski thought that over and said he would compromise: he would take 45 minutes to do the opening, then I would have 45 minutes to do the rebuttal. So that’s what we did.

Prior to appearing before the Court, we crafted the logistics of the case to convey that we were speaking for the United States of America and that the president was simply a recalcitrant witness. We styled the case United States v. Nixon, which was not its caption in the lower court. We printed our briefs on the same color of paper that the solicitor general uses, and we sat on the same side of the lectern where the solicitor general sits. I remember telling Jaworski, “Leon, the final hallmark of governmental authority is that the solicitor general and his staff always wear formal dress cutaways in the Court.” Jaworski shot me a rather dubious look, and said, “You’re lucky I’m not going to wear cowboy boots.” So that was where he drew the line. We wore dark business suits.

When you stand before the justices in the Supreme Court in a case where it is obvious that history is being made, does it feel any different from making an argument in any other case? Do you get a little dry in the throat?
It may sound vain, but I’ve always felt at home at the Supreme Court. I try to prepare well enough so that I’m not too worried that I’ll be asked a question that I haven’t anticipated, and I operate on the principle that a lawyer should never lose his or her credibility. If I don’t know the answer to something, I’m perfectly willing to say “I don’t know” rather than to try to make up something on the spot. Although I was aware of the historic nature of the case, I don’t think I was unusually nervous.

When you were done, did you feel like you had hit a home run? Did you anticipate an 8–0 decision?
I did feel optimistic that we would win, but I did not think we were going to get a unanimous Court. I thought we had the better arguments and that the day had gone well for our side. But I did not think a unanimous decision was likely. So when the Court handed down it’s 8–0 decision, I was pleasantly surprised.

Once the administration was forced to hand over the tapes, did you listen to them yourself?
Yes, I did. That was one of the most demoralizing experiences of my life. I was a Republican and had been a Nixon supporter. I suppose I was also a little naive. I had an almost mythic sense of the presidency. When I heard the content of those conversations, I was stunned. Here the president of the United States was sitting with his senior officials plainly discussing ways to obstruct justice and suborn perjury. By this time we had John Dean’s testimony and we all thought that Dean was credible, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised by the criminal conduct. We had sought the tapes in large part to determine whether or not Dean was telling the truth—as he was. But I was shocked by the bald coarseness of those conversations, by the crude locker room language, the mean-spirited vulgarity. Listening to those tapes was very disconcerting, very disheartening.

Did you think Nixon should have been indicted along with the other Watergate defendants?
Yes, I felt very strongly that Nixon should have been indicted. That was a source of strain between Jaworski and me. After Nixon resigned, one of the disputes I had with Jaworski concerned his decision not to prosecute Nixon, but simply to name him as an “unindicted coconspirator.” Jaworski explained that he had been persuaded by General Haig that Nixon was at death’s door due to the phlebitis in his leg. Jaworski thought Nixon had suffered enough, and that since he probably didn’t have much time left on earth, throwing him in the dock with his confederates would not be a humane thing to do. I felt that, unless there was the clarity of a criminal prosecution and conviction, the door would be open to historical revisionists to say, “This was a political witch hunt. President Nixon was not guilty of anything.” If we know anything from history, it is that revisionism will always be popular. I felt a criminal prosecution was vital so that the historical record would be unambiguous. And when President Ford pardoned Nixon, I resigned in protest.

In the ensuing years Richard Nixon was rehabilitated. He became an elder statesman, he wrote a number of best-selling books, and he was regularly consulted by presidents of both parties for his sage advice.

Yes, but he will always be remembered primarily as the president who was forced to resign in disgrace.
Yes, I think that’s true. To the extent that it is true, my fears that the historical record would be muddied by a failure to prosecute were probably unfounded. Perhaps Jaworski was right to be more humane, to insist that there were other values at stake rather than extracting the last ounce of justice from the principal misfeasor.

As you look back on the Nixon presidency, what do you feel now?
In retrospect, I’d say the Nixon presidency was a great opportunity squandered. On my office wall I have a picture of myself shaking hands with President Nixon. That picture was taken in 1992. That was 18 years after he had resigned the presidency as a result of the Watergate scandal. It came about when Nixon gave a private briefing to Republican contributors that I was eligible to attend because the investment banking firm for which I was working then had contributed handsomely to both political parties. In his late seventies at the time, Nixon spoke brilliantly on domestic issues, economic policy, and international affairs. I remember sitting there thinking to myself, “What a shame. This man is the best qualified person to be president of anyone I’ve encountered in the last 30 years.” He understood policy issues and was able to make judgments with a clarity of thought and purpose that is rare.

Afterwards we were all given a photo op. I went up to shake hands, and when he heard my name I saw a light of recognition flash in his eyes. I said, “Hello, Mr. President, it’s nice to see you again.” It was hard to tell what was going through his mind, but I’ll bet it was a bit of bemusement. In the picture there is a vague half-smile on his face. We hadn’t seen each other since Watergate, and here I was going up with a lot of other acolytes to shake his hand. So, in a sense, I suppose he had won the day.

What did you do after you resigned from the Watergate special prosecutor’s office?
I rejoined my old firm of Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, this time as a partner. I was told by one of my closest friends at the firm that during the discussion whether to take me back there was some controversy. In reflecting on my first stint it was noted that I had a rather lackluster commitment to private practice, and had sought every opportunity I could to get out of private practice. On my behalf the comment was made, “He may have been a lousy associate, but he’ll make a great partner.”

In any event, I did become a partner. I helped open a Washington office and spent the next 14 years doing litigation in Washington. I also got back into a couple of other governmental matters. I was retained as special counsel by the House Ethics Committee to head up an investigation into whether or not a Korean businessman had bribed several U.S. congressmen in what became known as the “Koreagate” scandal. I had a flap with the committee chairman, who, in my view, was obstructing the investigation, and I resigned after a couple of months. But before I did so, I put together a staff and retained John Nields to head the staff. He took over from me. He was absolutely the right man for the job, and he later became president of the D.C. Bar.

After dealing with a case like Watergate, where history is being made, is it hard to go back into private practice and represent individual clients?
Yes and no. There’s something refreshing about dealing with matters on a smaller scale that aren’t being written about in the newspapers. You often get a compensating understanding that the problems you’re dealing with are very important to the individuals you’re representing. Even in the cases where the client is a corporation, the people who are the corporation have a lot at stake. That’s also true, of course, in the pro bono matters I’ve handled over the years. It’s not going to get written up in the newspaper if a little old lady is about to be evicted from her apartment, but to the little old lady who is worried about being thrown out on the street it’s vitally important.

When you’re dealing with a client for whom a great deal is riding on the outcome of a case, can you remain dispassionate? Or do you find that sometimes you get a little too close to the client?
Yes, I get emotionally involved. I remember one of the first matters I worked on after Watergate was a white-collar criminal case in which a client of a friend of mine had been convicted. My friend came to me and said, “I’m devastated. I believe this man is innocent. He’s been sentenced to prison. Will you help me with the appeal?” I did go to work on the appeal, and I came to share my colleague’s assessment of the case. We were not able to get the courts to set aside the conviction, but we kept working, and eventually we were able to get President Carter to issue a presidential pardon. So this man got his life back. In cases like that, where you have a real human being facing very serious consequences, there is a degree of anxiety that comes into play. You do become close to the client, and you do understand that the stakes are very high. Getting the right result is a very powerful concern.

Was it while you were with Hughes, Hubbard & Reed that you ran for president of the D.C. Bar?
Yes. I had been involved in D.C. Bar activities for a number of years. I served on the D.C. Bar Board of Governors and was general counsel for the Bar. In 1987 I ran for president-elect, and to my pleasant surprise was elected. While I was serving my one-year term as president-elect, I was contacted about joining the General Electric Company in Connecticut as vice president and senior counsel in charge of litigation. I had never thought of doing anything like that, but GE was one of the largest industrial companies in the world, and it just seemed too fascinating an opportunity to pass up. The one constraint was that I was about to begin my term as D.C. Bar president. I gave considerable thought to whether I should resign, and decided that I could, in fact, perform my responsibilities as Bar president effectively through the use of technology and transportation. Actually, it worked out very well. Even though I was living and working more than 250 miles away, I never missed a board meeting, and I attended a lot of committee meetings. Fortunately, the chairman of the company, Jack Welsh, was supportive of my desire to serve my term and he never objected when I’d take a day or two to fly down to Washington to tend to D.C. Bar business. I spent a lot of time on the shuttle that year, flying back and forth between Washington and New York. I think I served as effectively as I otherwise would have even if I’d been residing in Washington. But the experience certainly made me unique in one respect: I’m the only Bar president to serve while not being a Washington practitioner.

Was the experience with GE rewarding?
Yes, it was stimulating. One of the factors that led me to try the corporate environment was that after 15 years of being at the beck and call of sometimes unreasonable clients and unreasonable judges, I thought it would be nice to go work from the inside where I’d be the person making the unreasonable demands! But what I discovered is that in a large corporation the 800-pound gorilla is the CEO. At GE that was Jack Welsh, and he was certainly not shy about making demands on his senior executives.

Jack Welsh is a legendary figure in the business world. What was he like to work with?
He’s a fascinating man. One thing about him that I came to admire and respect is that, unlike a number of CEOs that I’ve encountered, Welsh relished a good fight. One of my colleagues referred to our boardroom discussions as “food fights.” While Welsh wasn’t afraid to push, and to make his views known, he was self-confident enough to back off a position and say, “All right, you’ve persuaded me.” He was willing to listen and to be flexible. He did not surround himself with a bunch of fawning yes men.

Of course, running an enterprise the size of GE is an enormous challenge, and I learned a great deal watching him do so. The experience taught me a great deal about the strategic thinking that takes place within corporations, so that when I came back to private practice to counsel corporate clients, I had more insight into their long-term strategic needs.

In discussing your early career you made mention of the mentors who helped you along the way: Herbert Wechsler, Harold Leventhal, Thurgood Marshall, Archibald Cox. As a partner here at Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP, have you tried to mentor some of the associates?
Yes, I try consciously to be a mentor. I can’t pretend to be in the same category as a Herbert Wechsler or a Harold Leventhal or a Thurgood Marshall or an Archibald Cox. But to the extent that I can be of help in training young lawyers, I cherish the opportunity to do so. I’m always elated when I get a telephone call from an associate I’ve worked with who has gotten an exciting opportunity. I take pride in watching the careers of my former associates blossom, whether it’s in private practice, government service, or business. When I told the firm that I wanted to take early retirement, I was asked to remain as senior counsel in order to continue with two major responsibilities: running the pro bono program and training young lawyers. That was very attractive to me, so I’ve remained as senior counsel.

You have mentioned pro bono a couple of times, and now you are heading the pro bono program at Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw. Why is pro bono so important to you?
I take seriously the notion that being a lawyer involves a special public responsibility. We have tools and abilities that enable us to accomplish things for people who otherwise cannot protect themselves and their rights. I believe that we have a public responsibility to use those talents to benefit people who cannot afford to pay us. I beat this drum persistently with the young lawyers here at the firm. The law should not function solely for the benefit of those who can afford to pay. As lawyers, we occupy a privileged place in society, and I believe that with that privilege comes responsibility.

Do you find that the young lawyers coming out of law school today are as idealistic as they were in the 1960s, when you entered the profession?
Sadly, I would have to say no. There are exceptions, of course, but I worry that young lawyers today are not as idealistic. I think there are a lot of reasons for that. In the sixties a lot of people went to law school because they saw the law as an affirmative instrument of justice. They saw something ennobling in the law, rather than simply a way to go out and make big bucks. There are still a lot of young lawyers who are committed to doing pro bono today, and I don’t mean to imply that the idealism has evaporated. That would be an exaggeration. But there’s a different orientation today. Meanwhile the number of people who need legal representation but cannot afford it has continued to grow. As a consequence, there are larger and larger unmet needs.

If one of your grandchildren were to come to you and say he or she was thinking of becoming a lawyer, would you encourage that grandchild to enter the profession?
It’s interesting that you ask that. A year or two ago my son Michael gained a fair bit of renown for his work in the Microsoft antitrust case while he was at Sullivan & Cromwell. He was selected by a magazine as one of the best 45 lawyers in the country under 45 years of age. The article began along the following lines: “Michael Lacovara says that when he told his father that he was thinking of becoming a lawyer, his father advised him not to do it.” As I recall, my advice was not quite that blunt, but I did signal that lawyers had less fun than they used to because the nature of the practice of law has changed. Over the years that I’ve been practicing, I’ve seen the profession become more contentious, less civil, and more income driven. To some extent, the profession has fallen victim to the tyranny of the billable hour. I think that’s certainly true at the large law firms. The billable hour requirements limit the ability of partners to nurture young lawyers and to give them the kind of training that I received from my mentors. Clients simply won’t pay for training time; therefore the associates don’t get it. Ultimately, I think clients and lawyers are both poorer for it.

As you look back on your career, are there one or two things that you are most proud of?
I would have to say that Watergate was the most defining experience of my career because of the high political stakes. I found it satisfying to work with such an extraordinary group of lawyers. But I’ve been extraordinarily lucky throughout my career, working with Cox and Jaworski in Watergate, and with Thurgood Marshall and Erwin Griswold in the solicitor general’s office, and the partners at my law firms. It’s been a terrific ride. If I had it to do all over again, I don’t think I’d change a thing.


Periodically Washington Lawyer features a conversation with a senior member of the District of Columbia Bar reflecting on his or her career as a lawyer. The “Legends in the Law” are selected by the District of Columbia Bar’s Publications Committee on the basis of their prominence in their profession and their individual impact on the law and the legal profession in the District of Columbia. For past interviews, visit www.dcbar.org/legends.