Yesterday, the New York Times published a story about New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s ties to “big tobacco.” As an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell, Gillibrand — who replaced Hillary Clinton as New York’s junior Senator — represented Phillip Morris.
For most people who understand how law is practiced at the top firms in the country, the interesting part of the NYT article pretty much ends there. As an associate, especially a “superstar” associate as Gillibrand appears to have been, you work for the partners and represent the clients they tell you to represent. It’s really not that complicated.
But since Gillibrand is now a Senator and tobacco is “evil,” neither the Times nor Gillibrand could just leave well enough alone. The Times takes the first shot:
But a review of thousands of documents and interviews with dozens of lawyers and industry experts indicate that Ms. Gillibrand was involved in some of the most sensitive matters related to the defense of the tobacco giant as it confronted pivotal legal battles beginning in the mid-1990s.
Gillibrand was at DPW from 1991 to 2000. And she was really good at it. Wouldn’t one expect that a superstar mid-level would be involved in “sensitive matters” relating to a huge firm client? But hey, the Times reports that Gillibrand is a “former smoker.” Ah-ha. She clearly wants to hand out free cigarettes in elementary school.
But Gillibrand does slightly overplay her hand. We’ll get into it after I take a smoke break.
It probably wouldn’t have been politically acceptable for Gillibrand to say: “oh yes! I was all up in Phillip Morris. That case freaking made me. I probably could have made partner at DPW, but then David Boies offered me a bunch of money to jump ship to Boies Schiller. I was quickly able to roll those high powered contacts into a successful Congressional campaign — where I raised a TON of money — and now I’m a freaking Senator. Beat that with a stick.”
Fine, she couldn’t say that. But did she have to go in this direction?
After initially agreeing to be interviewed by The New York Times, the senator canceled through her spokesman, Matt Canter, who said that focusing on Philip Morris would not reflect the range of her work as a lawyer, which also included representing pro bono clients, including abused women and families contending with lead paint in their homes..
“Senator Gillibrand was serving as a young associate when she was assigned this case,” Mr. Canter said. “It is a small part of her 15-year legal career.”
I don’t have any inside information. But if I had to pick what was a “small part” of her Biglaw career, I’d bet the scorched earth battle against lead paint was a much smaller part of her practice than the being one of the go-to associates on Phillip Morris. I mean, the Times also reports:
When she moved in 2001 to a new firm, Boies Schiller, where she worked until 2005, one of Ms. Gillibrand’s clients was the Altria Group, Philip Morris’s parent company, where she helped with securities and antitrust matters, according to the firm.
I don’t think that she was hired for her pro bono commitment.
Even DPW gets in on the political act:
Still, in an approach that was not uncommon at law firms that represented tobacco companies, lawyers at Davis Polk were permitted to decline work on the tobacco cases if they had a moral or ethical objection to the work, Mr. Chang said.
Riiiight. “Sir, I have a moral objection to working with this huge firm client on cutting edge, high profile legal work. But I still want to make partner. Why don’t you get back to me when you have something I want to work on. Thanks!”
Look, Gillibrand was a good lawyer and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. She shouldn’t have to hide it. Then again, apparently there are a lot of people who don’t understand what lawyers do for a living:
At Davis Polk, lawyers not only represented Philip Morris in litigation, they advised the company on business strategy, including how to protect the image of the cigarette company and how to deal with concerns about the effects of its products. This approach reflects, in part, the longstanding closeness between the firm and tobacco makers. But it also raised concerns among critics that the lawyers had crossed a line, and were essentially becoming agents in the business operation.
There were instances, for example, when Ms. Gillibrand was called upon to help the company deal with mounting public unease about its product and practices, according to interviews and a review of industry documents. Ms. Gillibrand was also schooled in some of the chemistry of cigarettes.
Holy God man! You mean this “lawyer” actually learned about the product her client produced and sold? She advised them on business strategy? Damn it Jim, I’m a lawyer not a client services professional. I “strenuously” object.
With all the heat bankers are taking these days, it’s easy to forget that lawyers are also generally hated and poorly understood. But whether or not you agree with Gillibrand’s politics (which she is apparently still in the process of inventing) can we at least agree that her years at Davis Polk and Boies Schiller don’t really tell us anything about what she believes.
As New Lawyer, Senator Defended Big Tobacco [New York Times]