Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan
Thomas Perrelli may be better known for his forays into public service than he is as a Jenner & Block partner, but his zigzag path to the top of the legal profession has kept him “interested and happy” and given him a unique perspective that clients consider vital. The 1992 Harvard Law graduate joined Jenner & Block freshly out of law school, but left the firm in 1997 to serve as counsel to then U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, rising to the position of Deputy Assistant Attorney General before returning to Jenner & Block in 2001. More recently, he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2009 for the No. 3 post at the Department of Justice as Associate Attorney General of the United States. He rejoined Jenner & Block in 2012.
Lawdragon: Your career path is a bit unusual in a sense that you’ve switched more than once from private practice to public practice. How did you make those career decisions and what went into the process each time?
Thomas Perrelli: I have tried to make choices that would make me a better lawyer and keep me interested and happy in the practice of law. But I also believe that doing a good job at the job that you have is the best way to expand opportunities for the future.
LD: When you went back to private practice in 2001, you worked on copyright, media and constitutional litigation, public policy and regulatory counseling. But this time around you represent businesses, governmental entities and their leaders. Can you give us examples of the matters you are handling as chair of the government controversies and public policy litigation practice?
TP: My goal in returning to Jenner & Block was to build a practice that was as varied and interesting as the work I did in government, where I oversaw all the civil litigation of the United States. My current practice is extraordinarily broad-based, representing clients in regulatory litigation against the government, defending clients in investigations by state and federal authorities, and counseling clients on how to avoid legal and regulatory problems in the future. It spans traditional civil litigation and white-collar investigations, as well as antitrust, environmental, and tax work. Clients tend to hire me when they are facing multiple regulatory/law enforcement authorities and may also be dealing with media and legislative inquiries.
LD: Do you miss public practice at all? If so, what do you miss the most and what would compel you to go back to it in the future?
TP: I have enjoyed my time in the government, and I miss the many terrific colleagues at DOJ and other agencies. I would recommend that any lawyer consider an interesting and challenging opportunity in the public sector, whether in government or in the public interest. It has made me a better lawyer.
LD: What was your favorite class in law school and why? How about a class you wish you had taken but didn’t?
TP: I barely remember law school. I enjoyed classes taught by great professors, regardless of subject.
LD: The legal market has changed considerably since you graduated from law school in 1991. What advice would you give new lawyers just entering the job market?
TP: As I mentioned, the best way to open opportunities is to do a great job at the job you have. That gets noticed. When I was building my own practice, I found that offering to do work for potential clients for little or nothing was the best marketing – you could prove yourself and get new opportunities. The same is true in the tough legal market today. If there is an opportunity to take on a role where your good work can be noticed (unpaid internships, volunteer work, etc.), that can be very helpful. I also encourage young lawyers to be an active participant in their own career choices – too many young lawyers at law firms feel powerless; I truly believe that is not the case, but it is easy to be lulled into thinking that.
LD: In addition to your high-profile government role, you’re also famous for representing the husband of Terri Schiavo, in a pro bono case that really polarized the country regarding issues on right to control and decline life-extending medical care. What made you take on that case?
TP: To me, that case was about the government seeking to intervene and change the law that applied to everyone else for just one person. The courts ultimately agreed that the same rights and rules should apply in Ms. Schiavo’s case as they would to any other citizen and that the law that the state of Florida had enacted violated the separation of powers.
LD: You served as managing editor of the Harvard Law Review during Barack Obama’s tenure as review president. What was that like?
TP: I enjoyed my time on the Law Review and have many great friends from those years. All of us knew that the President was one of the most talented people we had ever met.