The Revolving Door Project is currently investigating the cloistered world of antitrust lawyers and BigLaw firms, a tight-knit group whose pally relationships can have literally deadly consequences. But one of the things that sparked our interest in this topic was an old Freedom of Information Act request filed in 2019, whose data we’re now releasing in this post.
Last October, we received a list of Federal Trade Commission staff members who passed through the commission’s Bureau of Competition from 2014 through early August 2019. By checking corporate websites, LinkedIn profiles, news articles, and other credible sources, we were able to determine that far and away, the most popular next career move for an FTC Competition lawyer is to go work for the very firms they opposed in court while public servants.
We excluded paralegals and interns from our analysis, leaving us with 82 individuals who had practiced antitrust law for the FTC since 2014. They ranged in rank from General Attorneys to Supervising General Attorneys, Assistant Directors, Deputy Directors, or Directors of the competition bureau.
We were able to track down 71 of these individuals. (We couldn’t locate the other 11.) Among these, 36 are now practicing antitrust law for corporate clients at BigLaw firms. (Note that one is now a clerk, rather than an attorney.) That means that a slim majority of individuals whom we could identify, and a strong plurality of the overall data set, have revolved into corporate law firms where they defend clients in the sorts of investigations and approval processes which they themselves used to administer.
Another six ex-FTC attorneys are no longer in BigLaw, but did initially revolve out to one of these corporate firms. Counting them with the current BigLaw lawyers, we find that half of the FTC Bureau of Competition’s attorneys and leadership revolved out to BigLaw since 2014 at some point.
This includes 5 of the 8 senior staff members — that is, the former Directors, Assistant Directors and Deputy Directors. Three of those former senior FTC attorneys now lead their firms’ antitrust divisions. (Stephen Weissman at Baker Potts, Norman Armstrong at King & Spalding, and Debbie Feinstein at Arnold & Porter). The other two have made Partner at their firms (Ben Gris at Shearman & Sterling, and Alexis Gilman at Crowell & Moring). The remaining three senior administrators are now retired, deceased, and a minister respectively.
Of course, going to a high-power firm isn’t the only way to reverse from pursuing the public interest to the private interest as an antitrust lawyer. A handful of FTC competition attorneys chose to cut out the middleman and become in-house counsels for massive M&A-fueled corporations.
Matthew Accornero became Principal Antitrust Counsel at Disney. Leonor Velazquez Davila became Intel’s Senior Counsel for Global Antitrust Compliance and Latin America ELC. Saralisa Brau revolved out to the pharmaceuticals and medical technology corp McKesson as Chief Antitrust Counsel. Monica Castillo van Panhuys first went to a BigLaw firm, but started practicing antitrust for JPMorgan Chase in March. Robert Friedman snuggled into ExxonMobil as an Antitrust Counsel. Additionally, Michelle Wyant was Managing Counsel at BHP Billiton in 2017. We could not determine if she is still employed by this British oil company.
Notice the types of firms which attract one-time antitrust enforcers: Disney is regularly called a monopolist by both anti-monopoly activists and cultural critics; Intel is an absolute behemoth in the microchip world; JPMorgan and other Wall Street megabanks led to the term “Too Big To Fail.” Big Pharma and medtech are notoriously M&A-fueled sectors; and Big Oil is, well, Big Oil.
To be sure, not every one-time FTC attorney cashes in on their experience. Six of the FTC attorneys now practice antitrust law at the Department of Justice, though one had a stint in BigLaw before revolving back into government. One is back at the FTC in the Healthcare division, while another works for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Two are known retirees, and an additional five we assume to be retired due to advanced age. Four seem to have left law entirely for craft brewing, college counseling, life coaching, and the aforementioned minister. And three work in non-profit advocacy for TIME’S UP, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and Public Knowledge, respectively.
Still, the overwhelmingly most popular career choice is to cash in by spinning through the revolving door. That’s perhaps related to a second, troubling finding: libertarian-leaning law schools are overrepresented in the 2014-2019 FTC Competition lawyers. Specifically, one in nine of these lawyers received either undergraduate, graduate, or J.D. degrees from George Mason University and its Antonin Scalia Law School. George Mason is closely affiliated with Charles Koch, to the point where it even inspired the creation of UnKoch My Campus, an activist group which fights against the Kochs’ libertarian pipeline.
That pipeline runs from Antonin Scalia Law School into institutions like the FTC, and back around to George Mason. Look at the Global Antitrust Institute which evangelizes lax antitrust enforcement around the world. It is led by a former FTC Commissioner, Joshua Wright, who was notorious for his laissez-faire attitude to antitrust. (And his close Google ties.) Several of his associates and former Scalia Law School colleagues are now in senior administrative roles at the FTC, including Bruce Kobayashi, who is now the FTC’s Director of Economics.
It’s one thing to understand that the revolving door is a corrupting influence on our federal bureaucracy, but it’s another to quantify it. We’re not the first to study its impacts on the FTC specifically. But as it relates to antitrust, the significance of the revolving door cannot be overstated. It’s a small world which practices antitrust law in America, yet this tiny clique wields tremendous power over the global political economy. Shining a spotlight on them and their decisions, for good or for ill, is the first step to creating a more just and less concentrated system.