Today is Lanny Breuer’s third “first day” at Covington and Burling LLP.
After nearly four years as Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division at the Justice Department, Breuer has returned to the firm that he calls his professional home.
In a newly created vice chair role, Breuer said he hopes to help the firm he first joined in 1989 — and rejoined two other times after stints with the government — grow internationally and build its presence in an increasingly competitive legal market.
When he most recently left Covington in 2009 for the Justice Department, the firm had a nascent office in Beijing, Breuer said. Now it has additional offices in Shanghai and Seoul, and he said he wants to use his experience building relationships with clients, opinion leaders and legal talent to expand the firm’s international presence.
“Creating a bigger footprint, being more involved not just in Asia but in Africa and emerging economies has got to be a critical part of what this firm should be doing,” Breuer told Main Justice in an interview Wednesday.
But first, he said he needs to learn about how things at the firm have changed.
Though Breuer’s first official day is March 28, he said he doesn’t plan to start full-time work until July 1.
In the meantime, he’s looking forward to an extended break — which he said at age 54 is a first for him — during which he’ll relax, travel to Italy and Asia and work on a “pathetic” golf game. He’ll also study how the firm has evolved during his hiatus at Justice and learn more about future opportunities.
Until he’s more integrated into the firm, Breuer said it’s difficult to say exactly how he’ll work as vice chair. What he does know is that it will be a team effort.
“We’ll all figure it out together,” Breuer said, referring to collaboration with firm leadership, including Timothy Hester, chair of Covington’s management committee.
Breuer said he will also maintain his white collar practice, which he hopes will grow following his stint as the Criminal Division’s longest-serving leader in recent memory.
Moving forward, he said he expects to have individual and corporate clients in areas such as foreign bribery, money laundering, export control, securities law and whistleblower cases.
Some matters will be criminal, he said. Others will be civil or deal with crisis management.
Even though Breuer has spent nearly four years directing the Justice Department’s criminal investigations, he said he won’t have trouble shifting roles to defend clients from the government.
“So, I love the advocacy system,” said Breuer, who started his legal career in 1985 as a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office before joining Covington. “I’m a zealous advocate, and I look forward to being a zealous advocate for our clients again.”
In a career spent moving between Covington and government posts, Breuer said he’s gain an intuitive understanding of how the Justice Department and the government overall makes decisions.
This experience, he said, puts him in a strong position to counsel clients trying to stay on the right side of the law and facing government investigation.
Breuer first left Covington in 1997 when he helped defend President Bill Clinton as special counsel in the White House Counsel’s office during Clinton’s Senate impeachment trial. He rejoined the firm in 1999 as co-chair of the White Collar Defense and Investigations practice group.
In 2009, he returned to public service as Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, with the backing of then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
In his tenure, Breuer oversaw a Criminal Division staff of nearly 600 attorneys working investigations involving issues like foreign bribery, Medicare and Medicaid fraud, copyright violations and money laundering, sanctions violations and interest rate manipulation by major banks.
The term — which has been vocally criticized by some, but which Breuer calls the privilege of his career — included what he has called a “new era” of enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. On his watch, the department secured eight of the 10 largest FCPA penalties in U.S. history and more than 40 corporate resolutions total.
The Criminal Division also secured the convictions of more than three dozen individuals for offenses related to foreign corruption.
Breuer also created a new unit dedicated to investigating money laundering as a primary offense and supervised the Deepwater Horizon Task Force in the wake of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
As a result of the oil spill investigation, British oil company BP paid $4 billion in criminal fines and penalties after pleading guilty to 11 felony manslaughter charges, obstruction of Congress and environmental crimes.
But others say Breuer failed justice gave Wall Street a pass in the wake of the financial crisis by stopping short in resolutions with banks and failing to put executives in prison.
Shortly before the Jan. 30 announcement of his departure, the PBS series Frontline ran a scathing documentary on the Justice Department’s failure to prosecute top executives at financial institutions and mortgage issuer Countrywide Financial Corporation responsible for a devastated economy.
In December, after international bank HSBC agreed to settle charges for $1.92 billion that it had failed to stop rampant money laundering and sanctions violations, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) accused Justice of giving the bank a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. HSBC entered into a deferred prosecution agreement, meaning it could avoid a guilty plea if it adheres to strict new compliance measures. Its top executives weren’t indicted.
Breuer, for his part, stands by his record in prosecuting financial crime, noting the complexity of the cases and the resources the department has dedicated to bring what he called historic cases.
While at the Justice Department, Breuer also came under fire in the aftermath of the botched Fast and Furious gun-tracing operation. In Congress, Breuer foe Grassley called on him to resign.
Breuer told Main Justice that numerous firms had contacted him about coming on board when he left the government.
After selectively screening which firms to talk to — and learning about other opportunities that he called impressive — he said he decided to go with the firm where he already had deep connections.
Breuer said he was out jogging when he decided Covington was the right opportunity.
That, and a talk with his 18-year-old son who said he didn’t think modern culture put enough value in consistency and loyalty, finalized his choice.
The opportunity to be vice chair was attractive, he said, because it will allow him to shape the firm’s future, even if the details of what he’ll be doing have yet to be laid out.
Taking the firm forward, he said, will require a hard look at its strengths and areas that are not as strong. It will also require an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of competitors and the needs of clients.
Saying what needs to be done this early on the job would be presumptuous, Breuer said, though he’s confident he’ll have something to offer as he studies the issues in the coming months.
“I think I can help articulate what our mission and mission statement will be,” Breuer said. “I think I’ll be able to articulate what Covington can offer. I think I can help Covington compete in the legal marketplace.”