Neal Katyal: From Debate Team to House of Cards


Neal Katyal

Partner, Hogan Lovells

Katyal, 46, joined Hogan Lovells as a parter in 2011. The son of Indian immigrants, he has argued more than 27 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Katyal also served as co-counsel to Al Gore during the controversial 2000 election, in which the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush as the winner. Recently, several tech companies brought Katyal on to argue against the FBI’s privacy case that targeted locked information on an Apple iPhone in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in San Bernandino. Below is Katyal’s story.


§ Loyola Academy, Wilmette, Illinois, graduated 1987

— Katyal attended Loyola Academy in the 1980s when it was an all-boys school.


“My parents wanted to keep me away from girls, they sent me there.”

Katyal’s uncle suggested he join debate to get over his shyness. Starting in his sophomore year, the debate team became a major part of his life, and he quickly joined the national circuit, which meant he only went to school twice a week. Katyal’s parents wanted him to quit because he was only in school half the time.


§ Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, graduated 1991

At Dartmouth, Katyal continued to debate as a member of the Dartmouth Forensic Union. As a senior, he achieved the #1 seed on the national circuit, which meant he spent between 20 to 30 weeks per year travelling the country to compete. He lost in the semifinals of the National Debate Tournament two different times. Before graduating, he set two goals: Win the national tournament and gain admission into Yale Law School. The first never happened.

“I got one and I was very happy.”

§ Yale Law School, New Haven, Connecticut, graduated 1995

Photo by Craig Warga/Bloomberg
Photo by Craig Warga/Bloomberg

“When I went to law school, it was the first time I was in school five days a week and I was like, this is so easy. I was like a kid in the candy store. I loved the law and I loved learning and I actually had time to do it for the first time.” 

Work Experience

§ Hogan & Hartson, summer associate, 1995

Chief Justice John Roberts was then a practitioner at Hogan & Hartson, now Hogan Lovells and Katyal credits him for his non-ideological view of the law.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg
Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg

“I’ve just been blessed to work with so many great lawyers in my life and he was at the top of the list.”



§ Clerked for Judge Guido Calabresi, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New Haven, Connecticut: 1995-1996

Katyal said Calabresi taught him to build his work product by listening to a diverse team of people in order to avoid groupthink.


“Lawyers, often good lawyers, don’t actually see all the issues.”


§ Clerk: Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer 1996-1997

§ National Security Advisor, U.S. Department of Justice, 1997-1999

The main project Katyal worked on during this stint involved running the task force that eventually killed the expiring Independent Counsel Act. The act had given Ken Starr and Lawrence Walsh the legal standing to do their jobs. Katyal went on to write the new rules for appointing a special prosecutor.

“I felt really good about it,” Katyal said. “I felt like I was restoring the founders’ vision of the Constitution.”


§ Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, 1997 to present

Katyal was born to Indian parents and said their dislike of lawyers caused them to cry when he went to law school. They revered education, so Katyal pursued academia and is one of the youngest professors in Georgetown Law’s history to earn tenure and a chaired professorship.

At Georgetown, Katyal served as lead counsel for the landmark Hamdan V. Rumsfeld, a 2006 Supreme Court case that went on to affirm that military commissions the Bush administration set up to try Guantanamo Bay detainees violated the four Geneva conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That win convinced Katyal that he had the legal chops to be a litigator.


“That’s when I started to realize, ‘Oh my old debate training has some real virtues and I can be a pretty OK advocate,” he said. “When you have a big win like that, it really changes your profile and that’s when the companies started hiring me and that’s how I came to president Obama’s attention.”


§ Deputy solicitor general, U.S. Department of Justice, 2009- 2010

§ Acting solicitor general, U.S. Department of Justice, 2010-2011

Katyal defended former Attorney General John Ashcroft against claims that he had abused civil liberties during the war on terror. Katyal argued Ashcroft had immunity and went on to win the case.

“The idea that we would hold an attorney general personally responsible for acts he took as an official defending the United States, I thought that was ridiculous,” Katyal said.

§ Partner, Hogan Lovells, 2011-present

At Hogan Lovells, Katyal focuses on litigation and arbitration, intellectual property, health and securities litigation and enforcement. He said he likes creative solutions and is excited about driverless cars and other Silicon Valley technologies. In 2015, he made an acting debut in the Netflix series’ House of Cards, and battled the show’s fictional solicitor general — the position he previously held.


In another widely covered case, Katyal represented Google, Facebook, Amazon and other companies earlier this year, arguing the FBI does not have legal authority to force Apple to break into an iPhone that the San Bernadino gunman used in terrorist attacks.

“I’m pretty deferential to the government on national security things, but that one went too far,” Katyal said.

UPDATED: This post has been corrected to reflect that Katyal has argued more than 27 cases before the Supreme Court.

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