Photo by Laura Barisonzi.
It’s always nice to go out – or at least make a career change – on top, which defines the recent professional life of Jonathan Streeter. The new Dechert partner was the government’s trial counsel against Galleon Group head Raj Rajaratnam, the centerpiece of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara’s highly publicized campaign against insider trading. Rajaratnam received an 11-year sentence in October for netting tens of millions of dollars from illegal trades.
As an assistant U.S. attorney, Streeter scored other high-profile trial victories, including fraud convictions against the former Duane Reade CEO and CFO, and against Ernst & Young partner James Gansman. He also was the government’s lawyer in the case against Marc Dreier, who took down his own firm (Dreier LLP) in an epic fake securites scheme that led to a guilty plea and 20-year sentence.
The Cleveland-born Streeter worked at Arnold & Porter for five years before becoming a federal prosecutor in 2000, a job he had long coveted. He was Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division in the Southern District before joining Dechert in February.
Lawdragon: Why did you make the move to private practice at this time?
Jonathan Streeter: I had an incredible job at the U.S. attorney’s office, but I felt like I had done everything I hoped to do there – I was able to work on a lot of great cases. I just felt like it was time for me to move on to the next challenge.
LD: You must have had some options in terms of firms that would be interested. Why choose Dechert?
JS: I was looking for a place that had two different things. Number one was an established practice in the space I want to work in, but number two was a kind of entrepreneurial spirit – a place that wanted me to grow my own practice within the law firm. Dechert is the best of both of those worlds. They have what I do in white collar and securities litigation, but at the same time it’s a place where they don’t just want me to show up and do the work that’s already there. They want me to develop my own practice.
The advice I got is that the happiest lawyers are the ones who ultimately are working for their own clients and have direct relationships with their clients. That’s what I was going for. The autonomy of having my own clients appealed to me because when I worked for the government I had a lot of autonomy. I had a lot of independence and responsibility at a relatively young age. I felt like the best way to have that in private practice was to have my own clients to answer to. Another thing about Dechert is that I wanted to do civil litigation, not just traditional white collar and SEC-related work. The firm has a great civil litigation practice. I wanted a mixture that allowed me to work on some relatively straightforward civil litigation in addition to criminal or SEC cases.
LD: I know this is a common dynamic for former federal prosecutors, but is it going to feel weird at first to have try to convince former colleagues not to charge your clients?
JS: I have one case now where it’s anticipated that very soon I will be going in to try to convince at least a regulatory agency not to proceed against my client. I’m finding it pretty easy to make the transition. I believe in the client’s argument, and so it won’t be difficult to do that. As a prosecutor I was able to appreciate the shades of gray and the defense arguments, so I don’t think it will be difficult for me to transition into that space.
LD: Do you think you will have any regrets leaving behind a job that was viewed as something of a public crusader?
JS: Well, you know, it’s funny. A lot of criminal defense lawyers think that what they are doing is just as important as prosecutors because the government is an incredibly powerful force, and there is a great benefit to the public in making sure the government is not overstepping its bounds. It’s just as important as having capable people in the government. I can’t deny that for me an important part of working at the U.S. attorney’s office was the public service part of it. But I don’t feel any hesitation in what I do now. I had a great run as a public servant, and I wouldn’t be surprised if years from now I do something again in public service. But I don’t feel any hesitation in what I do now. There is a real social value to it.
LD: What factored into your decision to leave private practice and become an assistant U.S. attorney in the first place?
JS: I ended up at Arnold & Porter for five years, and I kind of had to tear myself away because I was having such a good experience at a big law firm, being able to work on a number of trials. I know that a lot of people do not have nearly as fond memories of their early law firm time as I do. But the reason I left to become a prosecutor was that it was always something I had set out to do. Even before I went to law school, and certainly during law school, I knew I wanted to become a federal prosecutor. I reached the now-or-never point at A&P, thinking, “If I don’t apply for the job now, I’ll never do it.”
My inspiration to become a lawyer comes from my father and my uncle. My father was a corporate lawyer in Cleveland, my uncle was a litigator in New York City and had been a federal prosecutor himself. I knew a bit about his career, and with my personality I knew I wanted to be a litigator. And being a federal prosecutor is a great way to combine a bunch of different things I wanted to do. It was a great way to get to do trials, to work on interesting and complicated cases, and to perform a public service.
LD: Given the public’s anger at Wall Street, there seemed to be a huge desire for a high-profile fraud conviction, as well as a tremendous amount of scrutiny of the Rajaratnam case. What was it like to have all that pressure?
JS: It was a thrill to have all the media attention on the case. I can’t deny that it was exciting to be able to read about your case in the newspaper every day. And I was certainly aware of its importance to the U.S. attorney, that we win the case. The fact that there was so much media attention, it probably raised the stakes compared to if no one had been watching. But in a lot of ways, we kind of blocked it out when we were in the courtroom and working on the trial. In terms of the day-to-day pressure, once we got going, I was so focused on what I was doing, it didn’t alter my courtroom approach to anything.
LD: Media attention aside, what are the challenges of bringing a complicated financial case like that to a jury?
JS: Candidly, it was a little bit easier with this case because the facts, the characters and the evidence were so interesting – we had the wiretaps, colorful characters and witnesses who were prominent people. It was a little bit easier than in other financial fraud cases. But with financial fraud cases generally, you have to take incredibly complicated subject matter and break it down into simple parts. It’s doing that while also keeping the subject matter somewhat interesting for the jury. You have to have a real understanding of your audience, what they’re going to understand and not understand, what you need to really explain and what you don’t need to explain.
In the Rajaratnam case, we were constantly cutting and simplifying our evidence. We had six cooperating witnesses and only put three on; we had thousands of wiretap recordings and narrowed that down to 45 that we played; we had 40 stock transactions in play at the trial and used a little less than half in our case. We kept cutting away to get to the core stuff that we absolutely needed to tell the story. We put on the government’s case in about a month, and I was quite proud of that.
LD: What about the use of cooperating witnesses who have engaged in misconduct? How do you get the jury to buy into what they’re saying?
JS: I think it’s the age-old tactic that is kind of tried and true: If you get someone to completely come clean in front of the jury, then the jury is going to think that they have nothing left to hide. If you can really have that person get up there on the witness stand and air everything, then the jurors are going to believe he’s not holding anything back. You have to open the flood gates, so to speak. That was always my goal when putting on cooperating witnesses, to just have the person let it all out. It’s the best way to make them believable.
LD: Some of the media reports about the case and your role in it described your courtroom style as “laid back.” Do you see yourself that way?
JS: I don’t know about laid back. [Laughs.] A lot of people, like my wife, would probably say I’m not very laid back. What I’m going for in the courtroom is maximum credibility. I’m not going for being incredibly flashy or anything of that sort. I want to be believable and straightforward and kind of easy to understand. I think that’s what I have been trying to do as a trial lawyer – to basically take a straightforward and believable approach to everything.
LD: What else do you think you got from your time at the U.S. attorney’s office that has become a benefit to you now?
JS: The other thing, other than to be able to do lots of trial work, is that at a relatively young age you get the opportunity to make pretty important judgment calls, and on a regular basis. That will help me in private practice or anywhere, just having the confidence and the ability to make tough judgment calls, which you have to do at the U.S. attorney’s office all the time. Sometimes young lawyers in private practice get fewer opportunities to do that. For 10-plus years I got to do that all the time. It honed my judgment skills and made me confident in my judgment.
LD: Are you still tied to your Cleveland roots – do you still go back there?
JS: It’s funny, I still have this loyalty to Cleveland – still a huge Indians, Browns and Cavaliers fan. I guess you have to be a masochist in order to root for those three teams. I go back to Cleveland every other year, usually to see a game. I also have a really strong group of high school friends who are now spread all over the country, and we take a yearly trip together.