As a top-ranking attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, Matt Axelrod didn’t make it too far into the Trump Administration’s tenure before he walked off the job.
After President Trump on Jan. 30 fired his boss, Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, for refusing to defend his immigration ban — an executive order thattemporarilybanned travelto the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries(a revised order was issued Mar. 6) — Axelrod departed, too. His official title had been principal associate deputy attorney general and he had worked closely with Yates.
Both had planned to leave after Trump took office — as is often the case for political appointees — but Yates had been asked to stay until Attorney General Jeff Sessions was confirmed and Axelrod planned to stay with her.
On Monday, Axelrod resurfaced in the private sector as partner in the U.K-based Linklaters’ dispute resolution practice based in Washington, D.C.
The firm called his hire part of a “strategic priority” to strengthen its government risk team, which also includes Adam Lurie, a friend with whom Axelrod overlapped earlier in his career in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice.
Axelrod, who made the decision to join the firm weeks before he left the Department of Justice on the night of Jan. 30, spoke with Big Law Business about his move and the change in administration in Washington. The following interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Big Law Business: Can you talk a little bit about the climate at the Department of Justice right now?
Axelrod: The vast majority of the department’s lawyers and employees generally are career folks. For most people at the department and for the vast majority of the work, who the occupant of the White House or even who the attorney general or deputy attorney general is doesn’t really impact their day to day. There are of course some areas, in particular at Main Justice, where who is in those roles can have a big impact because different administrations have different policy views. For instance, we’re already starting to see policy changes in the civil rights area — the department revoked transgender guidance and switched positions in a voter-ID case.
Big Law Business: Part of your role was to handle crises — did it seem like there were more crises than usual in your last few weeks on the job?
Axelrod: The whole two years I was principal associate deputy attorney general it was intense. The work can be hard some days and can be stressful. It’s never dull, and it was not dull in the holdover period either, but that was sort of true to form.
Big Law Business: Why did you decide to join Linklaters?
Axelrod: One of the things that attracted me to Linklaters was that Linklaters has the varsity in Europe, Asia, and in the United States. There’s a great opportunity to be part of growing the firm in the U.S. and in DC in particular in the white-collar area. It also helped that it’s not just a great opportunity in the abstract. I have a good friend here doing the work telling me what a great place it is.
Big Law Business: You previously worked at the plaintiffs-side law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. What drew you to defense work?
Axelrod: One of the things that I experienced during my last two years at the Department of Justice was helping to oversee the daily operations, essentially acting as in-house counsel for a large institutional client. It just happens that the client was the Department of Justice. When there were crises or something flaring up on the Hill or in the media, I helped think through and manage those things.To be able to help [private companies] through internal investigations or resolving whatever exposure they have in negotiations with the government or, if necessary, going to trial, that’s an important role to play. I also really enjoy working on these issues: What are appropriate resolutions when corporations or financial institutions misstep? What’s the best way to put in programs to make sure that problems get identified and fixed?
Big Law Business: Do you think any of the Trump administration’s shifts in priorities will affect defense practice at all?
Axelrod: A lot of people are wondering whether corporate enforcement will persist in this administration, and I think it absolutely will. I don’t foresee there being a radical shift in the department’s approach to dealing with corporate crime because everyone is in favor of, if companies break the law, holding them accountable.