Appellate Lawyer Kannon Shanmugam Discusses Move to Paul Weiss

Right place, right time.

That seems to be the definition of Kannon Shanmugam’s move to head Paul Weiss’ Washington, D.C., office and build its appellate practice.

The thunderclap news broke in January that Shanmugam was leaving Williams & Connolly, where he headed the Supreme Court practice. He has since brought over five members for his flourishing practice, which seems to be a perfect fit for the incandescent Paul Weiss. The firm had never had a dedicated appellate practice, but chairman Brad Karp saw the need for one.

In Shanmugam, he found his match. Both Harvard Law grads are dazzlingly accomplished – Shanmugam with 27 U.S. Supreme Court arguments to his credit, and Karp as one of the legal profession’s most admired leaders. Both achieved success early and often (and both were among the youngest Lawdragon 500 members ever).

“We're already pretty busy; I have two briefs on my screen right now,” says Shanmugam, who argued four cases in front of the Supreme Court in the recently completed 2018-2019 term. “There's a real sense of excitement that this firm, one of the world’s great litigation firms, finally has a Supreme Court and appellate practice.”

A native of Lawrence, Kan., Shanmugam attended Harvard College at 16 and later won a Marshall Scholarship to Oxford. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia before joining the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office during the George W. Bush administration and then joining Williams & Connolly.

Lawdragon: I was blown away when I saw you were joining Paul Weiss.

Kannon Shanmugam: Well, it was a well-kept secret.  It was a hard decision, but it was the right one. I loved my time at Williams & Connolly and wasn’t looking to leave, but this was a once-in-a-career opportunity. Paul Weiss is a firm that is firing on every cylinder right now. It’s hard to think of another firm that is as dynamic.  I think it’s the best all-around firm in the country.

Five members of my team have since joined Paul Weiss, so we have a great group already in place. Which has been a lifesaver.

LD: Without them, you'd have, like, five briefs on your screen.

KS: I’d need a bigger screen!

LD:  What role did Brad Karp play in your decision to join the firm? In hindsight, the two of you joining forces seems like something that was meant to be.

KS: Brad is a large part of the reason I'm here. He’s an extraordinary law firm leader. He has a plan for the firm and he's so good at executing on it. He has a clear vision for the areas he wants the firm to be in, the areas he doesn't want the firm to be in, the geographic reach of the firm, and the shape of the firm. And people listen to him because he's usually right.

LD: He has an amazing track record. One of the things I've always appreciated about him is that as he has achieved financial metrics – most recently topping the $5M per equity partner mark – and brought in stars, he hasn’t given in to the temptation to govern by numbers alone. He believes in lawyers being lawyers and participating in a community and somehow manages to tie it all up with a bow.

KS: Paul Weiss is an incredibly successful firm, but one that has maintained a distinctive culture. It’s very collegial, a true partnership with a deep commitment to public service. There are so many places now where it's only about dollars and cents and the bottom line, and that's never been how this firm has operated. The Paul Weiss mentality is that if you’ve got the most talented lawyers in the right practice areas, the work will follow. I think that's the right approach.

LD: Agreed. So tell me more about Paul Weiss’s decision to establish an appellate practice.

KS: Paul Weiss has always had great appellate lawyers – Simon Rifkind, one of the firm’s name partners, was one of the finest Supreme Court advocates of his generation.  But the firm has never had a dedicated Supreme Court and appellate practice.  To its credit, it never pretended to have one either.

It makes a lot of sense that Paul Weiss would want to add that capacity, particularly at a time where the litigation environment is as competitive as it ever has been. The last thing you want is for clients to be going elsewhere because you lacked a critical capacity; to the contrary, you want to attract new clients because of that capacity.

LD: You’ve now done 27 Supreme Court arguments, nearly double the number when I last saw you argue. Can you talk a little bit about some of your most important cases and also what you're working on now?

KS: The Supreme Court doesn’t hear cases again for several months, but we have a number of petitions for certiorari in the pipeline, and a tremendous amount of work in the courts of appeals and even in the district courts.

In particular, we have several important appeals in criminal cases. We’re representing Evan Greebel, who was Martin Shkreli’s lawyer and was convicted of conspiracy to commit securities and wire fraud. We’re also representing Murray Huberfeld, the co-founder of the hedge fund Platinum Partners, in his appeal from his sentence for conspiracy to commit wire fraud.  Both of those cases will be argued in the Second Circuit this fall.

In addition to everything else, I’m the new managing partner of the Washington office. So far, that’s been a pleasure and a privilege. It's an office of 80 lawyers. It's a wonderful size – you can get to know everyone very easily.

LD: Safe to assume that recruiting Supreme Court clerks going forward is going to be something that you're going to enjoy quite a lot?

KS: Part of the value of a Supreme Court and appellate practice is the edge that it brings a firm in recruiting – not just Supreme Court clerks, but all top law students. That is going to be a high priority for me in these first few years. And I really enjoy recruiting.

LD: Can you talk a bit more about the lateral hiring process through which you joined Paul Weiss? They hire laterally rarely and with great precision and care. I’ve heard essentially all the partners have the opportunity to interview?

KS: Yes, that’s correct. Paul Weiss has historically been shrewd in its judgments about lateral hiring. Above all, it has done an incredible job of maintaining a home-grown and distinctive culture, while at the same time being very selective and strategic about lateral hiring -- using it to fill in gaps and strengthen its core areas of practice.

LD: Can you talk a bit about changes you have seen in Supreme Court advocacy over the past three to five years?

KS: It has become an even more competitive area of practice in recent years. While some more senior lawyers are riding off into the sunset, there is an enormous crop of extremely talented young Supreme Court advocates who are taking their place.  Virtually every major litigation firm has a bona fide Supreme Court and appellate practice now.

At the same time, clients are increasingly looking for lawyers who have the ability to synthesize and argue complex legal issues not just at the Supreme Court and appellate level, but at the trial level as well. I find that I'm increasingly being called on to argue big dispositive motions for clients who think, “Well, it’s basically the same skill to argue a complicated legal issue to one district judge as it is to argue it to nine justices at the Supreme Court.”  And so, I think there's a bit of an uptick in market demand at the same time that there’s more competition.

LD: It seems like there is a generation of Supreme Court advocates that is probably approaching their time to turn the page.

KS: You know, we all get older at the same speed. But it does feel, in the Supreme Court bar, as if a lot of generational change is happening all at once. There are a lot of opportunities right now for younger advocates as a result.

LD: And in your personal life, anything new there? Are you optimistic about the Royals this season?

KS: There’s never a dull moment in the Shanmugam household. We have three boys, ages 11, 10, and 2.  As for the Royals this season, the less said, the better.  I’m hoping for just one more World Series in my lifetime.