Masters of the Game

Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Firm

Kim Eisler

Thomas Dunne Books

1
ROOTS, BUILD, GROW, BRANCH
 
 
Many American cities are defined by the names on their tallest buildings: the banks of Charlotte, the insurance companies of Hartford or Jacksonville, the retail world of Chicago with its Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and Wrigley Building. In Washington, the city where I live and went to college, there are just short squat buildings, hundreds of them. In anthropomorphic terms, they are more reminiscent of Sam Rayburn or Theodore Bilbo than of Abraham Lincoln. No building in Washington can be more than thirteen stories tall. Reacting to the construction of a perceived ugly fourteen-story building in the late 1890s, Congress passed the Height of Buildings Act, which effectively mandated that no structure in Washington could be higher than the U.S. Capitol dome. Since then, the law on tall buildings has been amended, but the bottom line is that D.C. is not a city of skyscrapers.
However, if you walk around Williams & Connolly’s world in downtown Washington and happen to be familiar with an arcane lawyer’s reference book called the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, you would notice that the names on the squattest but most substantial buildings are those of powerful national law firms: Venable, DLA Piper, Winston & Strawn, O’Melveny & Myers, Hogan & Hartson. Maybe the names don’t sound immediately familiar, but each is the name of a giant law firm with hundreds, even thousands, of lawyers. Very few are doing anything as interesting as what you see on television dramas. Flamboyant personalities are frowned upon. One of the dirty little truths about Washington-style law is that lawyers here largely believe that once you have gone to court, you and your client have already lost. In one of the most famous comments ever made on the prosecution of a Washington insider, former secretary of labor Raymond Donovan once asked, after his acquittal on fraud charges, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”
According to Bar Association records, there are some one hundred thousand lawyers around this city. A good many of them deal in regulatory work. They are the lawyers who practice at federal agencies known only by initials: ICC, FCC, FEC, FERC, FDA, OTS, and USDA. You come up with the initials, lawyers will appear there. The cheery agriculture lawyers practice at the USDA; the pessimists prefer to call it the DOA. If there is no agency yet with your initials, just wait; there will be soon. Be sure a band of so-called experts in that alphabetic field will be waiting to break in.
Washington has more than its share of regulatory lawyers, banking lawyers, Food and Drug Administration lawyers (thousands of whom are in the employ of drug companies), real estate lawyers, contentious divorce lawyers (a small but busy band), labor lawyers, employment lawyers, trade advisers, and, of course, noisy white-collar defense lawyers, the guys you call when the FBI or the IRS is going through your trash. Not everyone can practice with Brendan Sullivan at Williams & Connolly, but the milieu surrounding them is both rich and often inbred, and the paths between Williams & Connolly and everyone else often cross.
There are the lawyers who lobby Congress, although many lobbyists are not lawyers at all but former congressional staffers. Some have law school training, others don’t. It isn’t unique to Washington, but naturally there is a good-sized number of slip-and-fall guys—even big shots can fall off a podium while giving a speech. You can drill down to some unique specialties. Nothing illustrates this more than the one lawyer in Washington who specializes in representing accused spies or beautiful dames, or a beautiful dame who happens to be a spy. That would be the ultimate client for Plato Cacheris, a son of Greek immigrants, who has represented some fairly famous people over the years. During the Iran-Contra scandal, Plato represented Fawn Hall, the attractive secretary of U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, the most famous of Brendan Sullivan’s clients. When North was trying to get secret documents out of the White House in advance of federal investigators, they were allegedly smuggled out in Fawn’s skirt and bra. Plato is over eighty now but still looks fabulous and totally in his element with a beautiful female client on his arm.
During the Clinton years, Plato represented Monica Lewinsky—not that she seemed as attractive as Fawn Hall, although apparently she was alluring to a certain U.S. president who had grown up in Arkansas. More to the point, Plato is still the guy to call if you are a busted spy, like CIA traitor Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen, the turncoat FBI agent about whom the movie Breach was made. Plato probably wouldn’t have his own television show, however. He almost always cuts a deal for his client. If the client faces death, Plato gets him life. If he faces life, Plato can get him out in forty years. Back in his day, spectators drove hundreds of miles to see Plato Cacheris perform in court, but he rarely, if ever, participates in actual trials anymore.
Cacheris is a charming old-schooler. He is warm, courteous, friendly with the press, easy to like. He sends thank-you notes when reporters write something nice about him. Espionage gamers keep his number in their Rolodex. When he was taken to federal prison in Alexandria to meet double agent Aldrich Ames for the first time, Cacheris stretched out his hand to introduce himself. “Plato Cacheris,” he said.
The prisoner looked at him with awe and glee. “I was wondering what I was going to do for a lawyer,” he exclaimed proudly, “and I get Plato Cacheris!”
Plato looks like a fearsome Washington power player in $1,500 Tasmanian fine merino wool suits that he buys from London’s Denman & Goddard. On the surface one might look at him and say “Washington establishment,” but despite the trappings, he’s a bit of a nonconformist. Plato can’t work in a big law firm. Corporate firms keep trying to hire him. Every five years or so the deal is so good that he accepts, plunging from his sole practitioner’s office into the bowels of a hectic, sock-’em-in-six-minute-intervals law firm. He never lasts long. Plato can’t fill out billing records. He can’t bear to force clients to pay, and he’s embarrassed telling them that firm bean counters are expecting him to charge nearly $1,000 an hour. He won’t double bill, an unethical practice not unusual in Washington. If a lawyer can talk to two clients in the same five-minute period, he can charge both of them his minimum billing rate, which is six minutes’ worth. Associates can use this as a way to slip ahead of their fellows on the partnership track, and it’s how unscrupulous lawyers manage to bill more hours than exist in a week, thanks in large part to the legal profession’s greatest profit-enhancing device, the BlackBerry. Technology is a two-edged sword, of course. The problem is so pervasive that clients now hire companies whose sole job is to uncover unethical billing practices and profit by splitting the refunds with the client. Another neat law firm trick is to charge clients excessively for office services, especially photocopying. When one young associate arrived at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, a powerful New York City– based firm largely representing banks and financial institutions, he was told to charge clients twenty-five cents per page. The lawyer was surprised and calculated the actual cost to be only nine cents at most, including labor. When he brought it up to senior management, he was told photocopying was a firm “profit center.”
Plato hates tedious meetings, he has no inclination for bullshit, and nobody has ever seen his thumbs rolling over an electronic device. He has no BlackBerry, he can’t do paperwork, and he won’t cheat. The green-eyeshade types ask for his billing sheets; he usually doesn’t fill them out. This most corporate-looking attorney in Washington is totally not corporate. After a few months in the Orwellian prison of the modern megalaw firm, Plato is back practicing by himself again, and the cycle begins anew. You can’t always tell as much as you think just by looking at someone. That’s the lesson—not the myth—of this modern day Plato.
The center of downtown Washington, around Thirteenth and F streets, was once a no-man’s-land. In the early 1970s, I had a job requiring me to carry a film-filled red mesh fruit sack from the offices of Time magazine at Sixteenth and I streets, two blocks from the White House and next to the elegant Hay-Adams Hotel, to the bus station about five blocks away. Eventually the rolls of valuable film would be loaded on a bus, sent to New York, and picked up at the Port Authority station in midtown to be taken to the Time photo editor in the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center.
Time would happily have paid for my cab fare, but I was a hungry college student. Well, the hunger was taken care of, since Time paid the dinner expenses each night for anyone who had to work after 8:00 p.m., which meant me. Cabdrivers did not exactly welcome a seventy-five-cent fare (yes, that’s what it was then) when on the other floors of our building were the distinguished lawyers from Washington’s most elite old-line law firm, Covington & Burling. So I stashed the cab fare from petty cash in my pocket and walked to the bus station. One of Covington’s best-known partners was Dean Acheson, who had been secretary of state in the Truman administration. He was the epitome of what a diplomat should look like, from the bowler to the white bushy eyebrows. I felt lucky when I realized I lived and worked in a place where I could just catch a glimpse of such a great man. One afternoon I found myself in the elevator with him. With us was a knot of chattering, complaining secretaries, returning from lunch. They got out, but I kept going, just so I could be alone in the elevator with a historic figure. It was a good move on my part. No sooner had they exited than he looked over at me and wiggled the eyebrows. “Trouble is the water we swim in,” Acheson instructed me. That was Washington in a nutshell.
Nonetheless, I worried my billing Time for cabs I never took might one day disqualify me from holding Acheson’s position. Perhaps that made me, like the lawyers, a double biller? I prefer to think of the petty cash allotment as a combat zone bonus. People thought I was nuts for walking into that area in those years. Suicidal might be a better word, In the 1960s and early 1970s, you simply didn’t cross Fifteenth Street in the eastward direction of the U.S. Capitol. Dozens of rats scampered openly across the sidewalks, heading for big blue bins of trash. You learned to look straight ahead walking the dangerous streets of Washington. Hookers lined the sidewalks of L and K streets like spectators at the inauguration parade. You never made eye contact with strangers. That was way too dangerous. People yelled, you kept going. I was never robbed and never shot, but I knew some who were.
The route taken by this small-town teenager to the bus station is not scary anymore. The porn stores and wall-to-wall hookers are long gone. The old Greyhound station itself, a protected neoclassic design that cannot be legally torn down, was rebuilt into a fancy office building. The old bus ticket counter is now a fancy reception area. There is a faux boarding bay in the lobby that still tells the story of the once busy bus station that used to be here. The reality of the Greyhound station was not nearly so glamorous as the nostalgic bus display makes it seem. Come to think of it, riding on a crowded intercity bus wasn’t really all that much fun. The rest of the building is now filled with lawyers. There are some who would probably say, “Bring back the rats.”
The best-known firm that was located inside the renovated bus station was a personal injury law practice headed by Michael Hausfeld, who had made millions suing companies and Swiss banks that aided or financed the Holocaust. He filed antismoking suits against tobacco companies and took on Exxon on behalf of local fishermen after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill damaged the fishing areas of native Alaskans. Time and distance had no importance to Hausfeld. He would sue anybody, anywhere. Descendants of people who aided the Inquisition could not consider themselves safe. He devised a grand plan—in the middle of the 2008 recession—to put offices all over the world to satisfy his dreams of global legal conquest. One day in 2008, when he was out of the country, his partners decided Hausfeld was too ambitious and his cases simply too expensive to pursue. So they voted him out of his own firm and taped a notice to that effect on his office chair.
When Hausfeld got to his office and found the note, he was perturbed. He told his partners that they were “cold” for putting the note on the chair, and he announced his intention to pursue what one could only assume was the logical end of his career: He hired attorneys to sue his partners. It was a fitting end to the firm he had cofounded some two decades earlier. They took umbrage that anyone would suggest there was anything unusual about work-chair notification. The managing partner of the firm told me, “As is the case with virtually any partnership, changes in status require formal written notification. Finding him out of the office, we left the documents in Michael’s office in a place where he was certain to see them—on his office chair, as well as informing him by e-mail.” So, silly me. It was apparently the most routine method of firing there is. I just didn’t know.
A few blocks west of the Greyhound station is a building that takes up about 80 percent of its block. It’s striking because in the back of the building, near Twelfth and F streets, there are trees and an open area with tables and chairs. Because of Washington’s height restrictions on buildings, it is unusual for architects to leave much open space at ground level. Because the architects can’t go up, they feel like they have to use every inch. The height restrictions supposedly preserve the view of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, although trying to spot either of them from downtown is like finding Mount Rainier from downtown Seattle on a cloudy day. In fact, under the law of unintended consequences, the building rules just make Washington even hotter and stuffier than it is already. Not that the summer heat isn’t oppressively stuffy in Washington anyway. Of course, that isn’t the fault of the buildings, though they probably don’t help.
 
On the ground floor of this particular building is a Così coffee shop and a random Plaza Café. A bunch of scrawny, mostly leafless trees grow out of the concrete, and several art pieces stand in the middle of it all. The artist is identified as Richard Hunt. The sculpture was dedicated in 1992. The official description of it reads Build-Grow, Branching Column, Four Growth Columns, Swan Column Fountain, 1992. I can’t disagree with any of that, though none of those choices might have comprised my first guess as to what was being depicted.
Behind the Hunt artwork is the 302,000-square-foot, twelve-story office building. A five-level parking garage underneath has room for 324 cars. The builders claim that the structure “projects the classical strength of Washington’s monumental stone buildings.” As you can discern, bullshit is not the exclusive province of bureaucrats, members of Congress, or their spokespeople.
Inside the giant lobby are Italian marble floors, mahogany walls, and moldings of bird’s-eye maple. The name over the door reads EDWARD BENNETT WILLIAMS BUILDING. Next to the entrance is a small plaque with the name of the major tenant that occupies the 250,000 square feet of usable nonretail office space, the Washington law firm Williams & Connolly.
If there was one lawyer who dazzled and epitomized Washington legal practice for the half century between 1938 and 1988, it was Edward Bennett Williams. Already there have been at least two major biographies written about him. One of them, The Man to See, by Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, is held in high esteem by the partners at the firm. The other one, entitled Edward Bennett Williams for the Defense, by Robert Pack, is more critical and thus held in lesser regard, as evidenced by the fact that the Evan Thomas book is mentioned on the firm’s official Web site. Mention the Robert Pack book to a firm partner, and you might get escorted to the tall glass door, though probably not thrown through it. Life at the firm has its oddities, but it is probably not as overtly violent as the movie of the John Grisham thriller The Firm, starring Tom Cruise. It may be dramatic in subtle ways, but there are a lot more people thrown through plate glass in reel life than in real life.
The fact that Williams & Connolly even has a Web site is rather remarkable. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the lawyers who work in this building is that for the most part they do not talk to reporters, even though they represent virtually every important network anchor and news media celebrity in the country and are ostensibly some of the biggest advocates for the freedom to say anything, true or false. Keep in mind one of their largest clients has been the National Enquirer. Still, they themselves don’t generally communicate with reporters. There was a time when that was considered proper for lawyers. Today, not bragging about yourself is considered quaint.
 
Excerpted from Masters of The Game by Kim Eisler.
Copyright  2010 by Kim Eisler.
Published in 2010 by Thomas Dunne Books St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.