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The Big Race: DC's First Election for Attorney General

By District of Columbia Bar

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Lawyers from Big Law have regularly served as the city's top attorney reports the National Law Journal 

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CANDIDATES: Five lawyers—Lorelie Masters, Karl Racine, Edward “Smitty” Smith, Lateefah Williams and Paul Zukerberg (left to right)—are vying to be the first-ever elected D.C. attorney general in the November election. The candidates appeared last week at a forum, above, at O’Melveny & Myers.
Photo used with permission by The National Law Journal/Diego M. Radzinschi

The National Law Journal reports--

"Lawyers who spent much of their careers as partners at big law firms have regularly served as D.C.'s attorney general. Irvin Nathan, who now holds the post, spent more than 30 years at Arnold & Porter. He was general counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 until his appointment in 2011.

Nathan's predecessor, Peter Nickles, and the late Charles Ruff, who went on to become White House counsel, were partners at Covington & Burling. The late John Payton, who later served as head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., came from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.

"Being a law firm partner at a major firm in town is often one indication of you just being an experienced lawyer of stature," said Walter Smith, executive director of the DC Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. "It's not the only one by any stretch of the imagination." Law firms, he noted, "usually don't make people partners until they have demonstrated they are accomplished."

Nickles, senior counsel to Covington, served as attorney general from 2008 to 2011. He said his management of lawyers and law firm operations at Covington, before becoming attorney general, was useful preparation. There's another upside to being from the law firm world, Nickles said: having a large network to tap when he needed pro bono help.

Private-practice attorneys can face certain learning curves, however. "Someone with pure Big Law experience is used to an environment where civil services rules don't apply, union rules aren't involved," said Katherine "Shelley" Broderick, dean of the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. "Hiring and firing is pretty straight­forward whereas in a government setting, it just isn't."

A. Scott Bolden, managing partner of Reed Smith's Washington office and a former D.C. Council lawyer, said private practitioners have to adjust to the sometimes slower pace of city government.

"In the government … policy and politics and process and procedures within a regulatory scheme can often dominate decision-making," Bolden said.

Schertler & Onorato partner Robert Spagnoletti was an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington before becoming attorney general in 2003. With a background in government — including working in an office where, like the attorney general's office, lawyers were unionized — he said he felt comfortable handling day-to-day administrative functions.

Lawyers who came from outside of government to the attorney general's job were more likely to focus on "big-­ticket" issues and delegate daily operations, Spagnoletti said.

Many former officeholders had done public interest work, full-time or part-time as pro bono counsel. Before becoming attorney general in 2007, Linda Singer was a public defender in New York and was executive director of the Appleseed Foundation, a network of public interest law groups.

"Your job is to represent the government and to represent the people of the District of Columbia," said Singer, now a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. "Certainly an appreciation of the complexity of those dual functions was something that I brought, and an understanding of how litigation interacts with and affects public policy."

Thorn Pozen of Goldblatt Martin Pozen said the experiences that lawyers from outside of D.C. government brought to the office, whether it was law firm management, public interest law or federal government service, were useful — to a point. Pozen was special counsel under Nathan, Nickles and Singer.

"The D.C. government is a different animal than anyone who has not been involved in D.C. government has seen," Pozen said. "I don't know that either firm or federal government experience is something that's going to prepare one for the day-to-day, rough-and-tumble of the D.C. government."

Read more about what the AG Candidates had to say