How law firms are turning on Trump, an ‘untouchable client’

Bizar Male
  • Crowell & Moring, DLA Piper and more than a dozen other law firms called on Vice President Mike Pence to remove President Trump from office.
  • Others are letting money talk. Cozen O’Connor has said it won’t give to politicians who challenged certified election results.
  • Seyfarth Shaw, which has represented the Trump Organization, is reportedly pulling out of several business lawsuits.
  • Calls for Trump’s removal and steps to dump him as a client may be without precedent. Even Richard Nixon got help from big-shot lawyers, before and after his resignation.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For months, the lawyers and law firms representing President Donald Trump in efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 election came under an intense wave of scrutiny uncommon for a profession whose members so often flock to the highest paying client rather than taking any stance on politics. 

Lawyers at Jones Day, Porter Wright and Snell & Wilmer may not have worn MAGA hats, but they were still targeted online and by protesters in the street.

Now, in the wake of the January 6 assault on Congress by a mob of Trump’s supporters, many law firms are taking public stands against the president and his allies. While lawyers in Big Law firms have historically been big donors to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, it is rare for them to take organized, public stands on such matters.

For Richard Kendall of Los Angeles-based boutique Kendall Brill & Kelly, one of more than two dozen law-firm leaders to have signed a letter calling for Trump’s removal, it was an easy call. 

“I think lawyers, who are trained to analyze facts and shine the light on lies and frivolous arguments, should speak out when they see outright falsehoods and manipulative propaganda being served up as fact in the halls of Congress by unscrupulous lawyer-politicians who seek to delegitimize a free and fair election,” he said.

Theodore Boutrous, a litigator at Gibson Dunn who has also sounded off against Trump, told Insider that he hasn’t been politically outspoken through his career, but what he observed of his fellow lawyers over the past two months made him speak out.

“For a firm to be associated with bad faith, frivolous assaults on the election process in our democracy, that just can’t be tolerated,” said Boutrous.

“Frivolous litigation is a terrible thing in any situation, but here where it was being used to try to undermine the public’s faith in the election process is simply outrageous.”

Boutrous has represented CNN and Jim Acosta in litigation against the Trump Administration for revoking Acosta’s press pass, and Mary Trump in her publication of “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.”

Like most businesses, law firms try to keep their reputations clean. Some firms decline to take on work for tobacco companies, and others won’t work for firearms manufacturers. While a top priority is a client that doesn’t create conflicts and can pay its bills, firms also often ask partners if a potential client will sully the firm’s image. (Whether lawyers answer accurately is a different story.)

For Seyfarth Shaw, Trump’s efforts to overturn the election were apparently the last straw. Seyfarth, a full-service law firm whose lawyers have represented Trump’s business in various civil lawsuits, decided last week to drop the Trump Organization as a client. Martin Grego, a firm spokesman, said it was “working with the company to secure new counsel….to ensure a smooth transition in accordance with our ethical obligations.”

Read more: Here’s how exit paths to Big Law — and a partner-sized paycheck — for Trump administration lawyers are shaping up right now

Other firms that never represented Trump, and thus aren’t bound by ethics rules that prevent them from disparaging him, took a harsher line. The letter Kendall signed called Trump a “threat to the Constitution” and urged Pence to remove him from office. It was also signed by leaders of 18 other firms, including Crowell & Moring, known for its representation of government contractors, and DLA Piper, which has more than 3,000 lawyers around the world.

“Law firms are becoming more like public companies,” said Deborah Farone, a marketing consultant who worked at top firms like Cravath and Debevoise. “They are being watched. They need to have greater transparency about what they stand for.”

For instance, corporate clients over the past five years have increasingly demanded that their outside counsel reflect a more diverse team of lawyers, while law students have taken to protesting certain law firm representations they deem immoral.

Law firms cut off political giving to Trump allies 

Some firms have said they won’t support the representatives and senators in Congress who challenged the results of the 2020 election through their political action committees. Cozen O’Connor, which has historically favored Democrats with its PAC, has said it won’t contribute to the representatives who sought to stop the tallying of electoral votes. Squire Patton Boggs, whose PAC contributions have favored incumbents, has said it won’t give at all until it reviews its policies.

Trump is reportedly even having a hard time finding a lawyer to represent him in his second impeachment trial. Bloomberg reported this week that previous legal allies including White House Counsel Pat Cipillone, New York litigator Marc Kasowitz, his personal lawyer Jay Sekulow, former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, and two lawyers who represented him in his first impeachment trial, Pat Philbin and Eric Herschmann, have all declined to take Trump’s side. 

The last presidents to be impeached, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, had well-regarded legal counsel even in the depths of controversy. Clinton was represented by allied lawyers with backgrounds at Williams & Connolly and Covington & Burling, both respected Washington firms.

Nixon, himself a former partner at the defunct firm Mudge Rose, was represented by James St. Clair, a senior lawyer at a predecessor firm of WilmerHale, and after his resignation, by lawyers from Paul Weiss, according to a 1975 article in the New York Times.

Read more: Government lawyers had a harder time landing a cushy partner role at a big law firm in 2020. Here are the 12 hires that turned heads.

Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics professor at New York University, said law firms have been raked over the coals before, targeted by both the left and right. Law firms that represented detainees at Guantanamo Bay were criticized by Pentagon official Charles Stimson, and student activists have taken aim at Paul Weiss for its representation of Exxon. But he said the extent to which firms have distanced themselves from Trump is unusual.

“Trump is becoming an untouchable client,” he said.

Reed Galen, a Republican consultant, said Trump’s actions after the election may have made it harder for a lawyer to justify representing him.

“At what point does the psychological switch flip from being conservative attorney — you know, limited government, rule of law, muscular foreign policy, conservative jurisprudence, whatever it is — to, ‘I’m going to advise the president of the United States that he should call a state official and demand that that individual actively change votes illegally to show him a victory that didn’t happen?'” said Galen, one of the principals of the Lincoln Project. “That’s a pretty significant psychological jump to me.”

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