The Federal Prosecutor-Big Law Revolving Door

Insight November 1, 2021

One of the most curious phenomena in the legal profession over the last few decades has been the explosive growth of private law firms’ criminal defense practice groups. Known by different names depending on who you speak with, this sector of the legal profession is perhaps most often dubbed the “white collar” practice area. Key to the growth in this complex—and lucrative—practice area is the growing number of former federal government lawyers who take their expertise and network from their government positions and use them in their capacities in the private sector. In what is often dubbed as a “revolving door,” the regulators become the regulated.

As a student fellow with the Center on the Legal Profession, I aim to study one facet of this revolving door: the relationship between federal prosecutors’ offices and large law firms. Much has been written already about the implications of the revolving door—for instance, what many see as a corrupting influence on the administration of government. Likewise, there has been a concerted effort to look at the particular revolving door phenomenon in the case of other federal government lawyers, especially those from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Still, there are others who defend this revolving door relationship, arguing that it mitigates the otherwise deleterious side effects of the adversarial system, and it works to democratize our justice institutions.

While the existing work on those topics is important, my project will take a different focus, endeavoring to learn more about the attorneys’ whose careers followed such paths, in order to provide guidance to both law students and junior attorneys who will one day serve in such contrary positions as both a federal prosecutor and white collar defense lawyer. I aim to ask questions like:

  • What are the challenges that emerge when transitioning between these diverse roles?
  • What do the junior lawyers who are walking through these doors need to know to be successful and satisfied with their practices?
  • What does this phenomenon say about an individual’s ability to zealously represent the United States or their clients in either capacity?
  • And most importantly, what can these future revolving door attorneys do to ensure that their complicated career paths live up to the highest ideals and standards of the legal profession?

This research project will fit neatly within the Center on the Legal Profession’s mission and existing research. My work will explicitly confront the complexity of working as a lawyer in these dual roles, and it will seek to posit how this dynamic fits within the broader 21st century legal economy. Within the confines of the Center, I will build off of Professor David Wilkins’ leading scholarship on professionalism. The idea of lawyers’ four ethical responsibilities—to clients and stakeholders; to the legal system; to their institution; and to society at large—is a rich concept that will serve a foundation for my research.

My research will ultimately depend on interviews with practitioners who have successfully made these complicated shifts in their own careers. While speaking with these attorneys, I want to learn more about the intricacies of their practices, what constituencies they work with on a regular basis, and how they use their former government or private sector know-how to succeed in their jobs. Moreover, I want to hear about their own professional stories, how they became the leaders that they are today, and what challenges they had to overcome in their own careers. In other words: “If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were first starting out in your career, what would you say?”

As a 2L at Harvard Law School, Daniel is passionate about studying and improving lawyers’ roles in strengthening democracy and the rule of law. Interested in ensuring that government is more transparent and accessible, Daniel served as a summer legal intern at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, and he is fascinated by government and public interest lawyering more generally. Prior to his legal studies, Daniel served in politics and government, working mostly for a member of the Los Angeles City Council. Daniel earned his B.A. in Global Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and he is the first in his family to go to college or graduate school.