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Washington Lawyer

Legends in the Law: Richard Ben-Veniste

From Washington Lawyer, May 2010

By Kathryn Alfisi


Richard Ben-Veniste made a name for himself in the 1970s as one of the lead prosecutors on the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. He also was chief counsel of the Senate Whitewater Committee and special outside counsel for the Senate Subcommittee on Governmental Operations, and served as one of 10 commissioners on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission. He is the author of the recently published book The Emperor’s New Clothes: Exposing the Truth From Watergate to 9/11 and coauthor of the 1977 book Stonewall: The Real Story of the Watergate Prosecution. Before joining Mayer Brown LLP in 2002, Ben-Veniste was a partner at Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP and at Ben-Veniste and Shernoff. From 1963 to 1973, he served as assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York where he was chief of the Special Prosecutions Section. He is a graduate of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Columbia University Law School; and Northwestern University (where he received an L.L.M. or Master of Laws degree).

Where were you born?
I was born in the Fertile Crescent section of Brooklyn during World War II. After witnessing the arrival of his first-born, my father promptly shipped out and spent the next two-and-a-half years fighting in Europe with the Army Air Force. My mother was pretty feisty; she had a tough childhood, growing up as a foster child from the age of 5, which gave her a heightened sense of justice and fairness. I was much influenced by her in terms of cheering for the underdog (we were Brooklyn Dodgers fans) and standing up to bullies.

When did you first know you wanted to become a lawyer?
I don’t think I knew until I was well along in college. I was a history and political science major, interested in the mechanics of government and what made the United States different among nations, and why it was that the rest of the world seemed to admire us. It was natural for me to want to focus on the Constitution and the rule of law as the foundation of our society. I think that was a logical segue to pursuing a career in law, although I must say I was very naïve at that point about what lawyers really did. I was the first lawyer in my family; my cousins and I were the first generation of college graduates.

Did you go directly to law school after graduating from college? What was your time like in law school?
This was a time of great turmoil in our nation. I opposed the Vietnam War on moral and strategic grounds. I went directly from Muhlenberg College to Columbia Law. Columbia, like many campuses across America, was a hotbed of activism and dissent as the war increased in intensity. While I still had no real idea of what I wanted to do, litigation seemed the most appealing avenue. Given a certain level of intra-family and generational contentiousness—particularly over the politics of the 1960s—I was getting plenty of opportunity to practice advocacy. My father had one point of view, and I had another. His admonitions about overtly protesting the government’s foreign policy decisions reflected a genuine fear for my future opportunities, borne out of witnessing—along with the rest of his generation—the corrosive effects of McCarthyism. It was not until years later, with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, that the matter was settled between us.

After graduating from Columbia, I was accepted into a master’s of law program at Northwestern University Law School under a Ford Foundation fellowship program that focused on criminal trial and appellate advocacy. It was run by Jim Thompson and Joel Flaum, two young former Cook County (Illinois) prosecutors in Chicago; Thompson went on to become a four-term governor of Illinois, and Flaum became the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Both have remained good friends. In fact, Jim and I were united when we were both chosen to serve on the 9/11 Commission. Jim and Joel were wonderful mentors whose recommendations were no doubt an important part of my being hired by Bob Morgenthau to be an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, the best job I ever had. It was there that I began to learn the skills and work ethic and develop the self-confidence that provided a foundation for my professional career.

You were only 24 years old when you started working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Were you conscious of being so much younger, and did you feel like you had to work harder to prove yourself?
It was obvious how much younger I was because so many of my colleagues seemed like grown-ups and I was still a kid. The norm was to have spent a couple of years in private practice before being considered for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but Bob Morgenthau was willing to count my year in Chicago as practical experience and gave me a chance.

Clearly, I realized that this was both a great opportunity and a challenge, but I didn’t feel I had to prove myself because of my age. The culture of the office was to give every young assistant as much authority as he or she could handle, so I wasn’t made to feel sensitive about being a few years younger than others in my entry class. I found that once I was in the courtroom, I was very comfortable and my more senior colleagues encouraged me and assigned me greater responsibilities. The experience of total immersion in a case, from preparation through the intensity of concentration on every nuance going on through the trial, was an exhilarating feeling that confirmed my decision to become a trial lawyer. I progressed from the short-trial section to the special prosecutions and organized crime section, which I found the most interesting and exciting place to be in the office.

What was the work environment like?
It was great. I just couldn’t wait to get into the office. We would sometimes work 16-hour days when we were on trial or preparing for trial. It was a “can-do” environment with one simple marching order: “Do the right thing.” There was no political litmus test for being hired; the office was completely apolitical in its process and in its operations, as I was soon to learn while working on official corruption cases.

I began to learn and absorb the tradecraft of being a trial lawyer from my mentors in the office, many of whom went on to become the premier courtroom lawyers in the country. It was pretty heady stuff, but clearly I had plenty of maturing to do. I remember getting my photo in the newspaper in connection with an organized crime case I was prosecuting when I was about a year-and-a-half into the job. I was feeling pretty self-important about it until a cousin from Brooklyn called to let me know that he had seen the article. I began to pontificate about the case until he interrupted me by saying, “Yeah, I was riding on the subway and I looked down, and I was standing on your face.” It was an epiphany of sorts for me, and one I remember to this day that reminds me of the danger of vanity and the need to keep my ego in check. I try to have a sense of humor about myself while treating my professional assignments with proper regard for their importance.

Through happenstance, I got to participate in what was then the most important investigation in the office, involving Speaker of the House John W. McCormack. This provided me the opportunity to work on a truly significant investigation involving what turned out to be the misuse of one of the highest offices in the country.

Tell me more about the McCormack case.
It started with two vectors of information—one came from a key Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant who over the years had provided a wealth of organized crime and official corruption information, and the other came from a walk-in individual who had some intelligence about a New York State Supreme Court justice who supposedly was fixing cases in connection with a lawyer named Nathan Voloshen. Upon investigation, it turned out that Voloshen had a number of clients who had federal problems that he was able to resolve successfully through some sort of influence. FBI surveillance of Voloshen revealed that he traveled twice a week on the 7 a.m. shuttle from LaGuardia to National Airport, where he was met by Speaker McCormack’s official limousine and taken to the Rayburn House Office Building.

We learned that Voloshen conducted his business from behind the Speaker’s district office desk and had McCormack’s office staff at his disposal. Further investigation showed that the Speaker’s administrative assistant, Martin Sweig, did Voloshen’s bidding, employing McCormack’s power and influence on behalf of Voloshen’s clients, such as getting prison transfers for organized crime figures; arranging meetings with high government officials for clients under investigation, such as with the chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission; and, perhaps most cynically, obtaining bogus “hardship” discharges from military service for the sons of well-heeled clients, notwithstanding the Speaker’s hawkish position on the war in Vietnam.

Here was Bob Morgenthau, a Democrat appointed by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, investigating the most powerful Democrat in Congress. That demonstrated, more than any accolades or words could, Morgenthau’s commitment to investigating allegations of criminal activity wherever they might lead.

Once it was established that Voloshen’s juice came from the Speaker’s office, there was no more assistance from J. Edgar Hoover’s politically sensitive FBI, so we ran the investigation through the use of grand jury subpoenas. As a result of this episode, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the [Southern District of New York] eventually hired a small cadre of its own in-house investigators. At the end of the day, both Voloshen and Sweig were convicted. There was no evidence that McCormack took a bribe or was directly involved in any of the specific cases of influence-peddling, but his failure to perceive what was going on led to his retirement from Congress.

When did you decide to leave the U.S. Attorney’s Office?
Morgenthau’s successor, Mike Seymour, appointed me to head the Special Prosecutions and Official Corruption Unit. After five years in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I was deciding what to do. I had been offered a job as chief of the Department of Justice’s Organized Crime Strike Force in San Francisco, which covered Northern California, the Northwest, and Hawaii. It was a tantalizing offer that I mulled over for quite some time before concluding that while I would be living in a spectacularly beautiful part of the country, there was one serious drawback from a career standpoint—there was no organized crime there to speak of. So, I reluctantly turned it down. But my attraction to San Francisco continued long afterward, and very fortunately so, for it was there, while trying a case in 1983, that I met my wife Donna Grell, but I digress. Soon after, I passed on the Strike Force offer, Watergate came around, and I was recruited to join the Watergate Special Prosecution Force.

Did it take you long before you accepted the offer? How quickly did you move to Washington?
It took about a nanosecond. I interviewed with [Watergate Special Prosecutor] Archibald Cox and his senior assistant, Jim Vorenberg, at the end of June, and I started on the Fourth of July, 1973. The investigation was divided into various task forces, reflecting the investigative mandate of the Special Prosecutor—e.g., campaign finance, dirty tricks, the Plumbers, etc. I was offered the opportunity to lead any of the task forces except the Watergate cover-up task force, which happened to be the one that interested me most. Vorenberg told me that Jim Neal, a former Justice Department prosecutor who had successfully prosecuted Jimmy Hoffa, already had been selected to lead that task force. I replied that I did not need to lead a task force—I would be happy to become Jim Neal’s Number Two. Jim was a decade older than me and vastly more experienced. He had taken a leave of absence from his two-man law practice in Nashville as Cox’s first recruit. Neal was well on his way to becoming one of the best trial lawyers in America, and I learned a tremendous amount, both in and out of the courtroom, from him.

On staff was a wealth of enormously talented people from the top down: Hank Ruth, Jim Vorenberg, Phil Heymann, the Breyer brothers—Stephen and Chuck—and Phil Lacovara. The lawyers I worked most closely with—Jill Wine-Banks, George Frampton, Gerry Goldman, Larry Iason, Peter Rient, and Judy Denny—in addition to Neal were on the so-called Watergate task force, assigned to investigate the alleged cover-up following the Watergate break-in. We immediately bonded as a team, as we began to work nonstop to get on top of the important investigative work that preceded the creation of our office—the Senate Watergate Committee investigation, which, under Senator Sam Ervin’s chairmanship, had developed a tremendous amount of information, as had Earl Silbert and Seymour Glanzer and their team at the U.S. Attorney’s Office before it was determined that a special prosecutor would be appointed to take over the investigation. So we began to utilize the building blocks that were in place and develop a strategy for moving the investigation forward.

What was a typical day like for you while working on Watergate?
Well, for the first two months I slept at the Hilton Hotel two blocks from our office at 1425 K Street because I never had time to look for an apartment. It was pretty much 12- to 16-hour days, seven days a week, until we could begin to get comfortable with the facts. All the while, we were dealing with interviewing and re-interviewing witnesses, as new information was developed and important pieces of the puzzle were fitting together.

What did you see as the challenges of the Watergate investigation at that point?
The principal focus of our immediate attention was [White House Counsel] John Wesley Dean III and trying to secure his cooperation without giving him a pass. Dean had been granted immunity as a condition of his testifying before the Ervin Committee, but it was one of Archie Cox’s articles of faith that Dean’s involvement in the criminal conspiracy merited prosecution and punishment. That was a most difficult assignment that we were able to accomplish by finding an area of potential liability about which Dean hadn’t testified in the Senate.

Immediately after Dean’s plea, Jim Neal made his long-planned return to Nashville, leaving me in charge of the cover-up team. The very next day, Saturday, October 20, 1973, one of the most memorable and frightening events of the Watergate saga occurred. In mid-July, Nixon aide Alex Butterfield revealed the existence of Nixon’s secret taping system under questioning by the Ervin Committee staff. This provided the opportunity to obtain direct evidence of selected conversations between the president and his top aides about their actions in response to the FBI investigation that followed the Watergate break-in: Was there a conspiracy to obstruct the investigation? If so, who was behind it? Who funded it? Who authorized it? Archie Cox set about a strategy to obtain direct access to the tapes; President Nixon was adamant in his refusal to provide the tapes voluntarily, so we subpoenaed them through the grand jury.

The White House proposed the so-called “Stennis Compromise,” under which 72-year-old Senator John Stennis of Mississippi would listen to the tapes and would authenticate White House-approved redacted transcripts in lieu of compliance with the subpoena. Having won decisions in the district court and United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upholding the subpoenas, Cox rejected Nixon’s demand that he accept the White House proposal and drop any further demand for the tapes for a number of reasons. Putting aside that Stennis was a pro-Nixon Democrat whose hearing had been impaired when he was shot in the head during a Capitol Hill mugging, such summaries would never be admissible in evidence. This created a monumental confrontation between our office and the White House, which culminated in the Saturday Night Massacre, one of the most traumatic events in recent political history. Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned, refusing the president’s order to fire Cox; Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was fired for refusing to obey Chief of Staff Alexander Haig’s order to fire Cox; and, finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork issued the executive order firing Cox. On orders from General Haig, the FBI came in and sealed our offices. The public and Congress responded to Nixon’s naked use of power with a firestorm of outrage, causing Nixon to back down and comply with the court orders to turn over the first tranche of tapes to the grand jury.

What was your opinion of Cox and what was it like working for him?
I had the greatest admiration for Archie Cox. He was always questioning everything we did from the standpoint of whether it was fair; it didn’t matter whether something was accepted prosecutorial tradecraft. I had five years of experience as a prosecutor in an office with a great tradition. Nonetheless, I would have to justify to Archie, kind of reinventing the wheel, what we were doing and why it was appropriate. That was a great exercise—some of these things I had never scrutinized or questioned before. I just found so much to admire in him personally—his dedication to the Constitution, his intellect, his integrity, his courage, his loyalty to his oath of office, and his commitment to investigating this case, no matter what the consequences. Each one of us on the staff was immeasurably affected by our association with Archie Cox.

Were you prepared to continue your task after Cox was fired?
Intellectually, we were somewhat prepared for Archie being fired as a consequence of rejecting the White House ultimatum. In fact, we had taken some precautions in advance of the Saturday Night Massacre, removing summaries of some documents to a safe place just in case something unthinkable happened, and then the unthinkable happened. The FBI took control of our offices that night; some of the same agents who were there working for us that morning were among the occupying force, which created quite a confrontation between our security detail (uniformed Secret Service) and the FBI. It was pretty scary; it was the closest thing to a coup I have ever seen in this country and something I hope never to see again in my lifetime. The foundation for creating the Office of the Special Prosecutor was to provide for independence, to appoint a highly respected lawyer who could be removed only for misconduct or malfeasance, yet force had replaced the rule of law. We were angry and we were disheartened.

There was some discussion about whether we should resign in protest inasmuch as the staff had not actually been fired, despite the White House’s statement that the office had been disbanded. Some staffers expressed the view that the responsible thing would be to resign. I thought it absurd to consider resignation, since nobody even realized we had not been fired. What was that going to accomplish other than to take us out of the game? My view was that we should stay on the job and continue to demand that the case continued to be investigated without interference, at least until such time as we actually did get fired. Shortly after the Saturday Night Massacre, we simply showed up in court when Judge John Sirica [chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia] announced he would convene the grand jury to assure the jurors they could continue with their work. The judge recognized us as continuing to have a role as counsel to the grand jury. In short order, the president backed down and the first batch of tapes was produced, providing very compelling evidence not only of the participation of Nixon’s chief aides Charles Colson, John Ehrlichman, Harry Haldeman, John N. Mitchell, and Dean in a conspiracy to obstruct justice, but of President Nixon’s own complicity.

Cox was eventually replaced by Leon Jaworski. How was Jaworski’s leadership style different from
that of Cox?

We didn’t know what to expect from Leon Jaworski since he had been hand-picked by Nixon and Haig after they fired Cox. Leon was a lawyer of considerable standing in the legal community and a founding partner in a major Texas law firm (Fulbright & Jaworski LLP). His style and Archie’s were very different. Archie was professorial while Leon was much more practical and had great experience as a trial lawyer. Jaworski was shocked and visibly shaken by what he heard on the tapes, not only by the evidence of a criminal conspiracy, but also by Nixon’s arrogance and mean-spiritedness in the way he spoke about members of his own party, not to mention political adversaries, as well as by the complete absence of moral considerations as the White House responded to the arrests of the Watergate burglars and the investigation that followed. As we know, the tapes demonstrated that the president urged the continuation of the cover-up, suggested the commission of perjury before the Senate committee and the grand jury, urged the payment of hush money to the original Watergate burglars, and associated himself with the cover-up directly by ordering Ehrlichman to approach the CIA deputy director to convey orders to the FBI to back off its investigation based on fabricated national security concerns.

How does it feel to have played a role in such an important part of American history? Did you think about the history-making nature of this case while you were working on it?
It was a wild ride on a real-life roller coaster. We were gratified that the response from the American public, the media, and much of Congress was very supportive of our efforts to investigate the case and bring charges against those who had violated the law. We were certainly mindful of the fact that we were now playing a role in the dramatic and historic events that were unfolding. We had to make every effort to ensure that we were proceeding along lines that were ethically and factually correct while using every appropriate means to get to the truth. Our trial subpoena for an additional tranche of tape-recorded conversations resulted in a second confrontation with the White House and an epic, unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Nixon, rejecting the president’s claim of unlimited executive privilege and ordering that he produce the tapes. The new tapes provided additional overwhelming evidence of the criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice. By that time, it was our case to lose; once we won the battle to get the tapes, there was an abundance of evidence to prove our case.

Do you think that without the incriminating tapes, Nixon would have served out the rest of his

In my view, without the tapes, the president would have continued in office and the word of John Dean and others who had negotiated plea bargains would have been insufficient to sustain impeachment, and certainly not conviction.

What effect do you think Watergate had on America, and what is its legacy?
I think the realities of the Vietnam War and Watergate pushed America into a new age of skepticism about its leaders. Presidents from both parties had consciously lied—abetted by top military commanders—about fundamental aspects of the war. And Nixon had very cynically used America’s innocence and unwillingness to believe that the president of the United States would involve himself in a criminal conspiracy, and then lie about it to shield himself from accountability. Indeed, I believe it was Richard Nixon’s bare-faced lies to the American public and to the leaders of his own party who had supported him, dramatically proved by the tape-recorded evidence from his own mouth, that ultimately put him in a position where he resigned the presidency in the face of certain impeachment and conviction.

How long did you work on Watergate, and was it hard to decide what you were going to do once you were done? You were still quite young, did you think to yourself, How am I going to top this?
This may sound amazing, but the elapsed time from when I was hired in June 1973 to the guilty verdicts that were returned in the cover-up trial in January 1975 was about 18 months. When compared to some of the special counsel investigations we have seen over the past decades, this was lightning speed. We were focused on the central issues and players in the investigation and did not get sidetracked.

Watergate was my last full-time government job. I was 31 years old when the verdicts were returned. After seven years in total as a prosecutor, I decided that the time had come to enter private practice. I received a number of interesting offers, including one from Edward Bennett Williams and Louis Nizer to join their firms. Instead, I accepted a partnership in what was then considered the medium-sized Washington law firm of Melrod, Redman & Gartlan. Maybe I was foolish to turn down offers from such lions of the profession, but I was motivated more by the opportunity and challenge of developing my own practice than by other considerations. After five years at Melrod, I started my own boutique firm with a good friend, Bill Shernoff, which I enjoyed for 10 years before accepting an offer to head Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP’s D.C. litigation practice group. In 2002 I left Weil to join Mayer Brown LLP.

I never considered having to “top” Watergate as a goal or priority. In truth, many of the cases I have tried over the years have been more difficult than Watergate, though hardly as momentous. My career has been anything but boring. I have been amazed by the ever-changing kaleidoscope of subject matter underlying the cases I have litigated over the years, and, of course, you interact with a variety of individuals, some of whom look to you for help in the most desperate period of their lives. I also have had the opportunity to participate in many pro bono and public service assignments, an exceptional benefit of making my home in the nation’s capital.

How different is a congressional hearing from a courtroom trial?
Well, first of all, the purposes of congressional hearings are fundamentally different from the purposes of a courtroom trial. Ordinarily, other than the fact that witnesses are sometimes asked questions in congressional hearings, there is very little similarity. I’m joking, but essentially there are no rules of evidence in congressional hearings, and no appellate court to reverse the rulings of the chair. Frequently, a member of the committee will spend his or her allotted time making statements and never get around to actually asking the witness a question. Of course, there are exceptions, particularly where there is cooperation between the chair and the ranking minority member on what they want to accomplish. For example, there was a world of difference between the highly politicized Whitewater Committee hearings and the bipartisan 9/11 Commission hearings. That being said, the skill set that I have honed as a litigator—attention to preparation, the ability to question witnesses, to listen carefully to their answers, and then follow up—has also served me well in my assignments as committee counsel in congressional investigations. Although, because of the pressure of strict time limitations on questioning, the congressional hearing experience sometimes takes on the aspect of a TV game show like the old Beat the Clock.

Representing a witness before a congressional committee is a much different experience than defending a client in the courtroom. It involves a recognition of the critical importance of committee staff, which does all the heavy lifting, identifying friendly questioners among the committee members, learning proper protocol for counsel’s participation—a much different tradecraft from litigating a case in court. Suffice it to say that in the congressional hearing process, there is a whole lot going on behind the scenes that experienced counsel will take into consideration as part of effective representation of a client.

Because you have been involved in a number of high-profile cases, there has been a lot written about you, both good and bad. How do you deal with negative press or comments?
I have come to get used to it and accept that it’s all part of the package. If you are involved in a high-profile case, it’s pretty much a given that you will attract criticism, or at least some degree of second-guessing, from some quarters. Not that I’m indifferent to constructive criticism—I’m a long way from perfect—but it certainly doesn’t pay to get distracted by negative criticism. You have to keep your focus on what you’re doing. My sense of self and how I approach professional obligations and responsibilities is pretty simple: Go ahead and do the right thing, and let the rest take care of itself. Of course, it’s nice to receive kudos for your work, but if you start worrying about how this or that will be perceived, it will curtail you in one way or another and affect the performance of your responsibilities. This can put you on a very slippery slope, so the easiest thing is to just go forward with your professional obligations and objectives clearly in mind.

Since the advent of the Internet, there has been an explosion of self-expression that is forever enshrined in print. Beyond pundits in the mainstream, I have drawn attention from wingnuts on the left and the right. My favorites on the left are a strident group of 9/11 “deniers” who claim that the Twin Towers were brought down by “controlled demolitions” and that the Pentagon was never hit by an airplane. To them, I am part of a conspiracy to cover up the “facts.” The wingnuts on the right are not as creative, going for less printable ad hominem attacks. As they used to say in Brooklyn, “Waddaya gonna do?”

What were your reasons for writing your book, Emperor’s New Clothes? What would you like people
to get from reading it?

The offer from St. Martin’s Press provided the opportunity to share my perspective on five of the highest-profile matters I’ve been involved in over my professional career, one in each decade from the late 60s to the present. I chose the Sweig-Voloshen-McCormack investigation and trials of the influence-peddling ring run out of the Speaker’s office; Watergate; Abscam, where I represented a defendant at the center of a wide-ranging and, in my opinion, out of control, sting operation targeted at Congress; Whitewater, where I served as chief counsel to the Democrats on the Senate Whitewater Committee; and, finally, my service as one of 10 members of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. The book definitely expresses my personality, point of view, sense of humor, and approach to professional life that I thought it would be fun to write about and to make available to those who would be interested—most importantly, my family, friends, and colleagues.

The tone of the book is decidedly nonpreachy. There is, however, a common thread, which is the presence of hubris and hypocrisy (the Scylla and Charybdis of the Potomac as I have observed) among certain of the major players I write about who are predictably heading for a fall. Beyond what I think are some pretty interesting and amusing anecdotes, there are a few lessons about the benefits of engaging in public service and that one need not be a constitutional scholar or a bomb thrower to have an impact on events. If there is a civics lesson to be gleaned from my observations, it is that our democracy is dependent on the quality of individuals in and out of government and the media who actively roll up their sleeves to make it work. Accountability is not reflexive; our democracy requires muscular and well-informed participation by citizens and our elected and appointed leaders to make it function properly. I think the portraits of some of the people I have had the privilege to observe—Archibald Cox, Lee Hamilton, Leon Jaworski, Tom Kean, Bob Morgenthau, Paul Sarbanes, Mike Seymour, John Sirica, to name some—portrayed in my book, make this point by example.

We’ve talked a lot about your professional life, but what about your life beyond the law? Do you have children?
My family has always come first. I have two wonderful daughters, ages 28 and 16, and, of course, my wife, Donna, who holds it all together. We love scuba diving, tennis, and skiing as family activities, but not golf! I have a self-diagnosed clinical condition which I call linkophilaphobia, the fear of wanting to play golf. Poker is another story. I’ve been playing in the same weekly poker game with largely the same cast of characters for the past 25 years. I love movies, and root for the Nationals (talk about underdogs) and the Caps. And now that I have finished writing my memoir, I have some free time to catch up on a lot of reading I missed.

What’s ahead for you? Have you thought about leaving the law?
Writing my memoir was an intense, introspective exercise for me. It made me realize how fortunate I have been to have pursued a career as a lawyer. The opportunities remain almost boundless for interesting and challenging assignments that have kept me from feeling stale or bored. For example, in the past year or so I have studied competing technologies for measuring the progression of atherosclerosis, delved into the nuances of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, learned about the relationship between cruise ships and the portside vendors who compete for their passengers’ business, researched the arcane world of New York real estate law, challenged in court and reversed an administrative agency’s denial of a quarter-billion dollars in tax credits to a client for environmental clean-up, convinced federal prosecutors that circumstantial evidence was not sufficient to warrant criminal prosecution of a client being investigated for insider trading, studied credit default swaps, and served on a task force reporting to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security on the national terrorism alert system. And that’s just a partial list of the tremendous variety of assignments that are forever opening new areas of interest for me. Of course, I have had outstanding support here at Mayer Brown, both in terms of the quality of partners and associates and in the encouragement I have received from firm leaders for my public service and pro bono pursuits. So long as I’m having fun and my phone continues to ring with new business, and as long as I enjoy the blessings of good health and remember which direction to face in a courtroom, I’m going to continue to practice.

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.