Wall Street Law Firm Emerges as Biden-Era N.Y. Power Center

Damian Williams, the man poised to be nominated as the next top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, shares a credential with several other New York power players associated with the Biden administration: he’s been a lawyer at the elite firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

Williams was put forth for the role by a panel that includes Robert Schumer, a Paul Weiss partner and the brother of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. If confirmed by the Senate, Williams will work a block away from Mark Pomerantz, a senior Paul Weiss lawyer now on leave helping with District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s criminal investigation of Donald Trump. Paul Weiss Chairman Brad Karp is a major fund-raiser for Democrats and has publicly advocated for immigration reform and gun control.

In many ways, it’s unsurprising that Paul Weiss has emerged as a power center in the Biden era. The New York-based law firm has ties to the Democratic Party and liberal causes dating back to the Roosevelt administration and burnished during the civil rights movement, when it helped Thurgood Marshall develop the legal strategy for Brown v. Board of Education. The firm’s current partner roster features several former Obama administration officials, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

“We have many alumni and friends in senior positions in the Biden-Harris administration,” Karp said in an email.

‘Most-Connected Man’

There’s also the possibility that a Paul Weiss alumnus, Representative Hakeem Jefferies, becomes House Speaker -- the New York Democrat is widely seen as a potential successor to Nancy Pelosi, who has said she won’t seek another term in two years.

According to John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia Law School, “Brad Karp is the most-connected man in New York City and Washington.”

That’s good news to the Wall Street banks for whom Paul Weiss is the go-to firm to handle allegations of wrongdoing. The firm of more than 1,000 lawyers also represents private equity funds, oil companies, Chinese tech giants and other large corporations in a variety of matters that generate over $1 billion a year in revenue, according to The American Lawyer magazine. That client list increasingly sits uneasily with the Democratic Party’s progressive tilt.

Wall Street Law Firm Emerges as Biden-Era N.Y. Power Center

Law firms generally benefit from being seen as having proximity to power, and many hire lawyers from both sides of the aisle to account for shifts in the political winds. But Paul Weiss is notable in how strongly it aligns with one party -- in the 2020 election cycle, the firm’s lawyers donated $4 million to federal candidates, with 90% of it going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Peter Zeughauser, a consultant to law firms, said Lynch and Johnson, who was considered for both defense secretary and attorney general under Biden, will be valuable to Paul Weiss clients because they “have access to other former administration officials, cabinet members, so they can find out what initiatives of various departments in government are writ large.”

Neither Lynch nor Johnson responded to requests for comment.

Williams worked at Paul Weiss from 2009 to 2012 before leaving to join the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, where he is currently head of the securities-fraud unit. According to people familiar with the matter, Williams’s candidacy for U.S. attorney was boosted by an endorsement from Paul Weiss partner Ted Wells, a dean of New York’s white-collar defense bar. Wells and Williams didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Democrats are expecting the next Manhattan U.S. attorney to revive scrutiny of Wall Street that waned under Trump. Few law firms would benefit more from that than Paul Weiss, which has one of the nation’s leading practice representing financial institutions facing federal investigations.

The firm represented Deutsche Bank in the government’s probe of Libor manipulation and negotiated a 2015 federal deferred prosecution agreement as part of a broader $2.5 billion settlement. JPMorgan Chase & Co. turned to Paul Weiss for the Justice Department’s foreign-bribery investigation of the bank’s hiring of the children of high-ranking Chinese officials, which ended with a $264 million settlement in 2016. Karp himself represented Citigroup in both government investigations and private lawsuits stemming from the 2008 financial crisis.

Paul Weiss also regularly represents ExxonMobil Corp., with Wells successfully defending the oil giant against a New York state lawsuit accusing it of spreading misinformation about climate change. The firm’s work for the company drew protests last year from students at elite law schools, including Harvard and Yale, who called for a boycott of Paul Weiss recruitment events.

More recently, Paul Weiss has lobbied the Commerce and Treasury departments on behalf of China’s Tencent Holdings Ltd. over Trump’s ban on the use of WeChat messaging technology in the U.S.

Active Role

His brother’s work at Paul Weiss has been an issue for Schumer in the past. A mergers and acquisitions lawyer, Robert Schumer advised longtime client Time Warner Cable in its proposed merger with Comcast Corp. in 2014. Chuck Schumer initially praised the deal as good for New Yorkers but recused himself from an antitrust subcommittee weighing the merger after his family connection was reported. The senator’s office said at the time that he was unaware of his brother’s involvement when he commented on the deal. Comcast later withdrew its $45 billion bid in the face of opposition from regulators.

Robert Schumer serves with lawyers at other firms on his brother’s panel screening candidates for judicial and U.S. attorney nominations. Though the panel has been chaired since 1999 by Mark O’Donoghue, a Curtis Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle partner, Schumer took an active role questioning candidates in the selection process that picked Williams, according to people who were present but requested anonymity because the meetings weren’t public.

O’Donoghue didn’t respond to a request for comment. Robert Schumer also didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, Chuck Schumer praised Williams and two other picks for New York U.S. attorney posts, Breon Peace and Trini Ross, as accomplished lawyers who “each brings their own invaluable personal and professional experience to the job that will help the federal justice system meet this current moment.” The senator also said, “I believe our institutions operate better when they more richly reflect the country and the people that they serve.” All three are Black, and Williams would be the first African American in the Manhattan role.

Schumer’s screening panel wasn’t very active under Trump, who largely relied on groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society to draw up lists of conservative candidates. Democrats are now eager to appoint as many liberal judges as they can while they hold the Senate and White House. There are currently two appeals court and seven trial court vacancies in New York, with more expected.

If history’s any guide, some of the judges Biden appoints could have Paul Weiss ties. Manhattan’s chief federal trial judge, Colleen McMahon, and her colleague Lewis Kaplan were both partners at the firm before being appointed to the bench by Bill Clinton. On its website, the firm proudly notes that Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor all began their legal careers as Paul Weiss summer associates.

The site omits the fact that Sotomayor didn’t receive an offer of full-time employment at the end of her summer. In her 2013 memoir, the nation’s first Latina supreme court justice largely blamed herself for not being ready but called the rejection a “trauma” that “would overhang my every career choice until I became a judge.”

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