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The Reputational Risk of Advising the White House

Posted by John Ford on Jul 20, 2017 10:43:08 AM

Until recently, a law firm wouldn’t think twice about working for a sitting U.S. president, members of his cabinet, or an executive branch agency. Such an engagement would be a feather in the cap of any firm—one to be bragged about, subtly or otherwise. But times change, and among the many norms that the 45th president has threatened to turn on its head is the reputational effect of being associated with the White House.

Recently, the Wallace Global Fund very publicly fired Morgan Lewis over its representation of the president. In January, a Morgan Lewis partner appeared at a Trump Tower press conference, where she outlined a plan to keep the president free of conflicts of interest between his role as president and as head of a large business empire. Months later, noting that the “ethical carnage is mounting,” Wallace Global Fund co-chair H. Scott Wallace terminated the firm in a public letter to the chair of Morgan Lewis. “We felt it was important to convey our decision . . . to the firm’s leadership, to invite you to think about larger principles,” the letter said.

Morgan Lewis is not the only firm that has become associated with the administration. Rob Kelner, a highly-respected political lawyer with Covington & Burling, has been representing former national security advisor Michael Flynn. WilmerHale’s Jamie Gorelick, former deputy attorney general under President Clinton, has been counseling Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Jones Day has sent a raft of attorneys into the administration. And Marc Kasowitz, founder of Kasowitz Benson, has long represented Donald Trump in defamation and other cases.

None of these attorneys or firms has suffered a public loss of business due to their Trump-related work. Even Morgan Lewis’s experience, while unpleasant, looks different given its full context. The Wallace Global Fund is named for former vice president and Progressive Party candidate for president Henry A. Wallace; it supports social justice causes that are at odds with many of the current president’s policies. The fund gave little work to the firm (less than $100,000 over the last year) and its letter noted that the firm had done “good work for us over the years.”

Still, no law firm wants to be the center of controversy, much less a public dressing down. And in the Trump administration, the likelihood of that scenario resulting from doing work for White House personnel has increased. For the first time, there is a reputational risk to consider in working at 1600 Pennsylvania. As Jamie Gorelick said about representing Jared Kushner: “I did think twice about it.”

Topics: crisis, reputational risk, politics