Lawyer Limelight: Gary Horlick
Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan

Gary Horlick’s first foray into international trade law may have happened by chance, but the born-and-raised and still Washington, D.C.-based attorney made the most of the opportunity by ascending to the very top of the practice.

Horlick represents American and foreign clients, including companies, trade associations and governments, in complex trade negotiations and disputes. In addition to his time in private practice (mostly in big firms, though he is now solo), Holick also worked at the U.S. Department of Commerce, where he headed the Import administration, and in the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, where he was international trade counsel.

Horlick earned his J.D. at Yale Law School and his B.A. at Dartmouth. He also received an M.A. in international law at Cambridge University.

Lawdragon: How did you become interested in an international trade practice? Was this what you imagined yourself doing at law school?

Gary Horlick: My international trade practice started as a somewhat obscure corner of the normal Washington administrative litigation practice. Admittedly, that sort of practice is focused in the U.S. in Washington and some state capitols, but the core of it was assembling facts, analyzing the law, writing briefs, preparing witnesses, and so on, so pretty much the usual litigation skills, with a bit of advising clients about how issues would be approached if litigation occurred. And about half of what I do is still the same litigation, focused on things called antidumping safeguards, and countervailing duties/subsidies.

But the geographic scope began changing dramatically in the late 1980s. Before then, the practice was exclusively in the U.S., sometimes representing U.S.-based clients, sometimes representing foreign-based clients with issues in the U.S., with a very rare excursion to Canada or Europe. Since then I have worked on these types of cases – always with skilled local counsel – in more than 20 countries. The same trend ­– globalization ­– meant a large increase in the number of the international trade agreements. As an experienced technician, I was pulled into the first significant U.S. trade agreement – with Canada – and have subsequently worked for the other government in six other Fair Trade Agreements involving the United States, and as counsel for major U.S. businesses in the negotiations forming the World Trade Organization, TransPacific Partnership, and now the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.  This also vastly expanded the range of areas I had to learn, including oil and gas pipelines, food safety; Daubert-like disputes over the role of science in international trade litigation; product labeling laws and advertising claims, U.S. Constitutional questions, and bare-knuckle politics.

I had planned none of this, of course. I was born and raised in Washington, DC – Go Nationals! – and was vaguely interested in the type of government regulatory practice I began in, but certainly not my particular area, which I had never heard of until law school, as no one taught it there. One day in my first year in a firm, a family friend who was mentoring me asked me if I wanted to work on a case with him. By chance it turned out to be in the international trade area and once I worked on one case, I knew enough to be assigned to a second case and so on and so on, just as many other lawyers wind up in their niches. Another key factor is my parents more or less bribed me to study overseas a year, which got me interested in international issues.

LD: What has kept you at it over your years in practice?

GH: I have been blessed that I work in an area which I find extremely interesting, although it may be an acquired taste. My practice has also given me the opportunity to work with people and organizations all over the world. There can be an amazingly close relationship between a client and lawyer, which drops many of the normal cross-border barriers. The client – which, of course, may be an American company, but foreign nationals too – sees you as his or her champion and on his or her team, and in many respects it is a closer relationship than living oversees as a student or at a job.

LD: I know you also get to interact with students through teaching. What advice would you give law students or young lawyers interested in developing a similar type of practice? What are some of the traits needed to ascend in such a practice?

GH: The single most important thing needed for success in this area is the traditional lawyerly skills: careful preparation, analytic thought, hard work, and the ability to present your client’s case coherently. It helps enormously to have lived in another country – any other country – and to speak reasonably well in another language. You cannot possibly speak every possible language, but speaking one other language helps you understand how English – even though a global language now – can be easily misunderstood in another language. In a competitive environment it helps to have studied the material with one of the excellent teachers that can be found across the U.S. and elsewhere, and also internships such as with the WTO, congressional committees, government organizations, and law firms with leading trade practices.

LD: Another interesting part of your practice is that you’ve been a solo practitioner for a while.  Why did you decide to go out on your own, instead of continuing to practice at a large law firm?

GH: I’m thoroughly enjoying being my own boss, but I spent most of my career very happily in large, high-quality law firms. I started at Steptoe & Johnson, a wonderful firm, which is now my landlord, and left when I was offered a very interesting government job. I spent 19 wonderful years at O’Melveny & Myers, in a very small, two-partner high-level practice.  When the other partner told me he planned to retire – demographics is everything, his children were older than mine, and were finishing college – I moved to a larger practice at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.  Wilmer then merged with Hale & Dorr, one of the most successful law firm mergers, but one which unforeseeably left me with a cascading series of conflicts.

After I had to turn down General Motors, Nike, Wal-Mart, Siemens, Akzo Nobel, and others for client conflict reasons, I realized that the merged firm’s increasing success at attracting clients was creating more and more in conflicts for me, so I left, though I continue to see many of my former partners at Wilmer, O’Melveny and Steptoe as friends, and, frequently, co-counsel.  Most of the conflicts, I note, were not conflicts in the legal sense, but rather the result of the extreme positions increasingly taken by clients that “if anyone in your far-flung firm is working on any issue for any of our competitors, we won’t hire you, even though we approached you because you are the best in the field.”  The advantage of being a sole practitioner is that I have neither far-flung offices nor other practices with colleagues doing things that make me lose clients.

LD: You’ve also had a number of other interesting high-level positions, including working at the Senate Finance Committee and Commerce Department, and serving on a WTO dispute resolution panel. What benefits do these types of professional experiences bring to your practice?

GH: Working in government is first of all an opportunity to serve one’s country, which is unbelievably rewarding. Professionally, in a specialized field like mine, it is also an opportunity to work on all the big cases – by contrast, when I get one or two of the best cases in private practice, it is more than my fair share. People assume that government jobs are taken because people will then hire you for your “influence” or “access.”  In my field, there are only one or two positions where that might be true, and the former occupants, in my experience, do not take advantage of it.  Most people who hire me have no idea that I actually worked in government – they choose me because I am recommended by other people who have worked with me, as is true in many law practices. But it is a huge advantage to have worked in the government jobs, and also on WTO committees and panels in my area, because I found immediately that I was understanding the issues from an important viewpoint in ways that very few private practitioners without government experience can do.

LD: Can you share some of your thoughts on the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s international trade policy?

GH: The Obama Administration, in the midst of the worse financial debacle since the 1930s, has pushed ahead with some of the most important international trade initiatives since World War II. Three stand out:  the Transpacific Partnership, the U.S.-EU trade negotiations with Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the new International Services Agreement negotiations.  All of them bring together countries accounting for at least 40% of world GDP, in an effort to put in place better working rules that will help continue the vast improvements in human wellbeing that we have seen since World War II. Life expectancy in developing countries has doubled, maternal and infant mortality has dropped 90 percent, more than 80 percent of the world now has clean water – there is a lot to do still, but considerable progress has been made.

The U.S.-China relationship is an inevitable focus for the Obama Administration by virtue of the sheer size of both countries. I have written more extensively on this, but, in short, my clients tell me that to succeed – or even survive – globally, a company will  have to have a successful market position in the U.S., Europe, and China. So the key question for U.S. policy makers is not how they can keep out Chinese imports – the largest number of which are clothing and footwear, which we barely make in the U.S. – but rather how to make sure U.S. companies and workers can operate successfully in China.

LD: Is there a lawyer you have negotiated with or litigated against that you particularly admire, and why?

GH: I have had many wonderful mentors and competitors but if I had to name only one it would be Richard Cunningham at Steptoe & Johnson.

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what do you think you would be doing now? Do you see yourself leaving the practice of law and doing something different?

GH: I really enjoy what I do so I don’t think I’d be doing something else. I always enjoyed my history major, and I continue to read history for fun, but the academic politics scared me off early on.