Originally published on March 24, 2021 on WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page.
“Biden’s DOJ Picks Assailed for Corporate Ties in Letter to Klain.” “Pressure Rises on Biden to Shut Tech Out.” These are just two of the headlines the self-appointed guardians of the public interest have generated since President Biden began the arduous task of filling out executive branch agencies. A coalition of nearly forty activist groups have warned the President to steer clear of “BigLaw” attorneys that have represented corporations (especially BigTech) or have worked in corporate legal departments. Such attorneys, the coalition asserts, have an inherent conflict that disqualifies them from certain public-service roles.
In its letters, the coalition paints BigLaw and in-house attorneys as cartoonish caricatures whose private-sector work has left them incapable of representing the public interest. A February 22 letter to Attorney General nominee Judge Merrick Garland asserts that BigLaw attorneys have spent so much time helping clients “evade business regulations, taxes, [and] white-collar criminal statutes” that their perceptions have become “warp[ed] … about how these and other laws should be applied.” The letter added, “Routine corporate defenders” cannot possibly undertake “the gargantuan task … of rewir[ing] their practice to diligently apply laws.”
The coalition’s perspective on the practice of law is, to use one of their own words, so warped, and its description of corporate attorneys as programmed robots so absurd, that the activists’ missives to Biden Administration officials might easily be ignored. Unfortunately, sympathetic reporters and politicians have paid attention. During his confirmation hearing, Judge Garland addressed conflict-of-interest concerns on antitrust enforcement and the White House Press Secretary recently responded to questions about a March 9 letter from coalition ringleader The Revolving Door Project to Chief of Staff Ron Klain.
These letters are a direct attack on the entire legal profession and an affront to the ideal that equal justice requires zealous legal representation, even for the unpopular and disfavored. The letters’ signatories no doubt embrace that ideal, but sadly exempt from its coverage certain businesses due to their size and success. It’s true, as the February 22 letter says, that “attorneys can choose whether their career paths will entail predominantly serving the powerful and well-connected.” But there’s no reason why those very same attorneys cannot follow a higher calling to serve the public, and there’s no support beyond baseless suppositions that their past work biases them against law enforcement.
If this disqualification campaign chills attorneys’ interest in high-profile federal agency positions, or deters their nomination to federal agencies, no one wins but the activists. Public-service-minded attorneys will be more likely to steer away from hot-button legal and regulatory battles and “controversial” corporate clients. Those clients in turn won’t receive the best possible representation on how to navigate America’s regulatory morass. Businesses’ legal non-compliance in turn creates costs for their shareholders and their customers.
The public also loses when talented and knowledgeable attorneys eschew government service. Those who have worked for or represented corporations possess general instincts and specific expertise that the coalition’s preferred lawyers (legal academics or public-interest attorneys) are unlikely to provide. BigLaw attorneys know how to build and litigate complex cases. Some have also previously worked in government, and can quickly take the reins at a division at DOJ or an agency. Of course, if a government attorney’s past work poses a conflict in any given lawsuit or regulatory action, agencies’ ethics and recusal rules exist to address such situations.
The coalition’s no-BigLaw, no-BigTech purity test has perhaps delayed the nomination of a Solicitor General of the United States. The coalition’s lobbying has likely slowed the nomination process for a Federal Trade Commission Chair and an Assistant Attorney General for DOJ’s Antitrust Division. President Biden has, however, nominated Columbia Law Professor Lina Khan to fill an FTC Commissioner spot. The March 9 letter to Chief of Staff Klain praised Professor Khan as “one of the most important antitrust scholars of our time,” whose Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox law review article “upended antitrust legal theory in a way few law articles do.”
That statement is quite revealing, especially when it is made in the context of disqualifying an entire class of attorneys from public service. The activist coalition clamoring against BigLaw and BigTech isn’t interested in law enforcement free from outside influence. What the activists want is for their views to influence how federal agencies operate. They want agency heads, Commissioners, and other senior officials willing to harness the power of government to advance their agenda, one that is hostile to free enterprise and economic liberties. And the activists don’t want sober-minded attorneys with corporate backgrounds around to offer an alternative, and possibly more reasonable and effective, point of view.
Despite the traction the activist groups’ disqualification campaign has gained, we remain hopeful that the new administration’s agencies will feature attorneys with a broad spectrum of ideas and work experiences. Judge Garland’s statement at his confirmation hearing, noted above, is promising. When asked about whether a former BigTech in-house attorney was in the running for the Antitrust Division’s Assistant Attorney General, Judge Garland explained she was not, but he added, “Unfortunately or fortunately, a lot of the best antitrust lawyers in the country have some involvement in one way or another in some part of high tech and we can’t exclude every single good lawyer from being able to be in that division.”