The revolving door between Big Law and government agencies has long been a target of criticism, but a new report by watchdog organization Public Citizen argues that the number of former corporate attorneys working in the Trump administration should be even more cause for concern.
Seventy-six of 127 senior Trump administration lawyers have “revolving-door concerns,” meaning they previously represented companies in the industries they’re now tasked with overseeing. Corporate lawyers are currently at the helm of nearly every major Justice Department division, according to the report.
It’s common for corporate attorneys to take government jobs, and the Trump administration is not the first to hire its talent from Big Law. For example, former Attorney General Eric Holder worked at Covington & Burling, Obama White House Counsel Neil Eggleston came from Kirkland & Ellis, and Kimberley Harris, who served as deputy assistant to the president in the Obama administration, worked at Davis Polk before and after her time in government.
“Big Law has always been present in administrations to varying degrees, but never so much as in the Trump administration,” said Craig Holman, a governmental ethics expert at Public Citizen who edited the report.
The Trump administration stands out for hiring most of its Big Law attorneys from just two firms: Jones Day has 12 alumni in the Trump administration, and Kirkland & Ellis has 11, according to the Public Citizen report.
Several of those lawyers are working directly in the White House, including White House Counsel Don McGahn and special counsel to the president Annie Donaldson, both former Jones Day attorneys, and John Eisenberg, a former Kirkland lawyer who now serves as deputy assistant to the president.
“The revolving door in the Trump administration provides the corporate clients of Jones Day and Kirkland Ellis unparalleled access and influence in government, and will eventually become a financial bonanza for the revolvers and the law firms themselves,” said Holman.
Representatives for Jones Day did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A representative for Kirkland & Ellis did not respond to a request for comment.
The concerns raised by Public Citizen are not that administration officials have simply come from Big Law, but that many officials have led careers seemingly at odds with their current assignments. At the Environmental Protection Agency, the Trump Administration has hired or nominated at least ten lawyers who have worked for oil refineries and organizations interested in using public lands for energy exploration.
Typically, former lobbyists, who are often lawyers, are not allowed to work in an agency they have lobbied in the previous two years, and if they do, they must limit their work to a different issue area.
Presidents may grant waivers to these rules, but in the past they have been rare. According to Public Citizen, the Trump administration has granted far more conflict-of-interest waivers for White House and federal agency officials than previous administrations.
“These officials bring to the job a deep appreciation of the views of the corporations they will now help regulate,” said Alan Zibel, author of the Public Citizen report.
In the report, Zibel identified 23 key legal jobs and compared Trump legal hires to the Obama administration officials who held the same positions. Nine of those jobs presented “revolving door concerns” in the Obama administration, compared with 17 in the Trump administration.
Of course, many corporate lawyers leave Big Law for careers in public service in order to do good, according to Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, an initiative to increase scrutiny of executive branch appointments to make sure appointees serve the public interest.
“But Trump’s hires don’t seem to fit that model,” he said. “They’re relatively young and tend to have little previous public service experience—these are not generally, say, longtime prosecutors who spent a few years at a firm building a nest egg before popping back into government.”
Hauser believes the Obama administration also raised revolving door concerns by hiring many Big Law attorneys, but that the Trump administration makes those concerns “seem a bit quaint by comparison.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Russell-Kraft at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editors on this story: Casey Sullivan at email@example.com and Nicholas Datlowe at firstname.lastname@example.org.