Photo by Justin Clemons
Certain people are truly extraordinary. They not only possess the passion and drive to do great things, but they’re also able to execute those things in real time, in the real world. These rare individuals have the capacity to impact change for communities, bring about reform in antiquated systems and even re-shape culture. Erin Nealy Cox is one of them.
Nealy Cox has mastered the art of remaining nimble. Ever-questioning, ever-listening, she can pivot when called upon. As U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas in the Department of Justice – a role that Nealy Cox calls, “the experience of a lifetime,” – her work was highly impactful and downright inspiring. She honed in on domestic violence through hyper localized gun control initiatives and built the North Texas Trafficking Task Force in an effort to abolish human trafficking. “These are huge issues,” Nealy Cox says, “and it’s such a great privilege to be able to work on them.”
Though growing pains cause discomfort, Nealy Cox believes in the power of remaining curious about new experiences. “I think you have to be really receptive to not staying on the well-trodden path,” Nealy Cox says, “and allowing yourself to experience these great opportunities.”
Nealy Cox has led by example in her expansive career, which included being at the forefront of the then-nascent world of cybersecurity breaches. Over the years, her vast scope of practice has included fraud, national security, public corruption, workplace compliance and governance. Now, as partner in the Dallas office at Kirkland & Ellis, the accomplished trial lawyer works mainly with corporations who face potentially devastating disputes and complex investigations.
An exemplary advocate who is working to be the change she wants to see in the world, Nealy Cox is an esteemed member of The Lawdragon 500 Leading Litigators in America.
Lawdragon: You’ve had such a fascinating career. What does your current mix of practice look like?
Erin Nealy Cox: I represent companies when a regulatory entity has inquiries. It could be a DOJ subpoena, or it can be as simple as the SEC called and they have questions. I help with all sorts of internal investigations as well, but my work goes more towards companies that have big problems. I put it under the larger umbrella of white-collar work.
LD: Where are regulators focusing these days?
ENC: The Department of Justice has really focused on corporate criminal responsibility. That is an area that I spend a lot of my time in. And it's expansive. It can be anything – financial fraud, public corruption, any regulatory misconduct that the feds are interested in. It’s a very interesting area to be practicing in.
And of course, I still love doing cyber work, but I really like making sure that’s not all I’m doing. The bigger the problem, the more you want to dig in and really help your clients figure out how they're going to deal with it and resolve it successfully. When you're able to help clients do that, it's really satisfying work.
LD: How much of your career path was planned? It’s been quite diverse.
ENC: I believe you should always be open-minded to great opportunities and challenges in your career. You don't want to find yourself on a rote path. I had great opportunities put in front of me and I was willing to consider them. I got the opportunity to be a federal prosecutor and I loved every minute of it. Then, I had the opportunity during the Bush administration to work in Main Justice on high priority policy initiatives with Congress and the White House. That meant my husband and I had to move our two-year-old to D.C., but it was this wonderful opportunity and well worth it.
After 9/11, when the Department of Justice was putting together the pieces and realizing the nexus between counterterrorism, anti-terrorism and cyber securities, they started asking people to go into these cyber sections and help.
When I came back, I went into cyber investigations consulting – something that I knew very well and was very comfortable with from my work as a prosecutor. During that time period, everybody was just learning about these massive breaches – Target, Home Depot, Neiman Marcus. Now, breaches get announced every day, but back then it was a really big event for a company. It was a great opportunity to be in this fast-moving, new, technology-driven business that was adjacent to what I had been doing throughout my prosecutorial career.
Then I had an opportunity to go back into government as a high-level DOJ appointee. I was responsible for a big portion of Texas and was tasked by the Attorney General to be on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, an assignment which meant I was up in D.C. every six weeks. Again, a great opportunity that allowed me some very unique experiences that if I had been holding to a typical track I might not have gotten. I think you have to be really receptive to not staying on the well-trodden path and allowing yourself to experience these great opportunities.
LD: That must have been fascinating to get in on the ground floor of cybersecurity.
ENC: Yes. After 9/11, when the Department of Justice was putting together the pieces and realizing the nexus between counterterrorism, anti-terrorism and cyber securities, they started asking people to go into these cyber sections and help. As a public servant, I had a call to serve and I just wanted to help – to do whatever I could. I did that. I had no technical background, but I knew how to ask questions and I learned from some of our best cyber experts. After a while, you start speaking the language and really understanding what's happening.
LD: What has surprised you about working in cybersecurity over the years?
ENC: It's an interesting area because clearly the companies that are being hacked are victims. They are victims of a criminal act. But in many ways, we don't really think of them as victims. And they do have a responsibility to do better, no doubt, but they are victims of a crime as well. My career has been around helping victims and so it was easy for me to work with companies that were victimized by bad actors, like hackers that are often well-funded and operate ruthlessly.
No company, nor even the federal government can make themselves invincible – there’s no silver bullet. It is a process of constantly being vigilant, and working around the clock to keep your network secure. Many companies are doing the best that they can do against a very well-resourced threat actor – especially when it's a state-sponsored threat actor. The hackers are very successful and they're not going away. I think it's really about trying to do the best you can in the environment that we live in.
LD: What did it mean to you to be appointed as United States Attorney in Texas for the Department of Justice?
ENC: It was the privilege of a lifetime. I returned to the office that I essentially grew up in and I was put in charge. I worked very closely with all the federal law enforcement agencies, FBI, DEA, Secret Service, Marshalls, you name it. Then to have that close connection to D.C. – it was an experience of a lifetime.
When you're a U.S. Attorney, even though it's a political appointment, once you're in the job it becomes very apolitical. You have to be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. No doubt there's politics involved in that. However, once you're appointed into the top law enforcement position in your district, you have to become an apolitical leader and deal with some very difficult challenges for the community. National security, public corruption, rising violent crime, the increasing opioid and fentanyl crises – these are huge issues, but it’s also such a great privilege to be able to work on them to better the community.
No company, nor even the federal government can make themselves invincible [to cyber threats] – there’s no silver bullet.
LD: It seems like you were really effective while you were there. Are there certain accomplishments that stand out to you?
ENC: I'm so proud of the work that we did on human trafficking and the work that we did with respect to domestic violence victims. We did some amazing work on public corruption cases in the city of Dallas. I worked with a talented team – the best and the brightest lawyers, and we were all rowing in the right direction. The common denominator throughout my career has been a combination of unique challenges and leadership opportunities.
LD: Were those issues that were mandated for you by Main Justice when you took on the position?
ENC: No, those were my initiatives. In Dallas, violent crime rates and homicide were going way up. We started to look at the gun crime laws and how we could prevent the greatest number of homicides. And it wasn't even close. The gun crimes that result in the most homicides are those involving felons. Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor in domestic violence that then possesses a gun, statistically the chances of violence skyrockets.
In my mind, that was an easy place for us to make a dent in violent crime in our community by enforcing laws against gun crimes that were already on the books. That was where we could focus our resources to make the biggest impact. We worked hand in hand with ATF to support victims and police departments and to make sure they knew they could refer these types of crimes to the feds. We ended up naming our initiative Operation Ty – after a pregnant woman who was a victim of a domestic dispute. Her boyfriend shot her in her stomach, killing her and her son. The son’s name was going to be Ty. It was emotional for everyone, but he became the spirit and inspiration for our initiative.
LD: Wow. Sounds like such meaningful work.
ENC: Yes. And that's just the gun crime. The district that I represented had a lot of human trafficking – both sex trafficking of girls and adult human trafficking. I partnered with Homeland Security to create a task force to work with the state and locals, because the state of Texas has great human trafficking laws. They helped us to find cases that involve lots of money or criminal organizations or where smuggling victims were being trafficked into the state for a big event. And we shut down large businesses that were engaging in human trafficking.
LD: Can you talk a bit about what drew you to Kirkland?
ENC: Kirkland’s an amazing platform. It's a highly reputable firm with amazingly talented lawyers and it's world renowned for its standards of excellence. I think that’s what made it attractive to me. And the firm is relatively new in Texas – the Dallas office is not even five years old. Being able to come to a firm like Kirkland, but in a new and growing area for the firm – this was exciting for me. I was also very interested in building out the firm's white-collar practice in the state of Texas and that was an aspect that appealed to me as well.
Kirkland is the type of environment where we are constantly mentoring and developing our young lawyers. What I have chosen to spend a lot of my time on is helping to develop female lawyers here at the firm and helping folks in the white-collar practice grow, learn and develop. That’s where I most feel like I can add value to the firm. And to be clear, I am learning a lot here too. When you are in an environment like Kirkland, surrounded by the talented people that work here, you are going to learn a lot. I have been the happy beneficiary of that learning opportunity.
In Dallas, violent crime rates and homicide were going way up. We started to look at the gun crime laws and how we could prevent the greatest number of homicides.
LD: Would you say white collar is a tougher area for women compared to other practices?
ENC: It can be. I mean, I think it can be tougher for women just because it’s still a male-dominated space when you look at CEOs, especially in public companies. But that also provides a great opportunity because women bring a unique perspective to problem solving. What we're finding that is best for our clients, is putting together teams of highly talented lawyers that have a diversity of opinion and thought and perspective such that we can help them with their most complex high-profile problems.
LD: Could you share your advice for young female lawyers who want a career in white-collar and investigations?
ENC: My first piece of advice is to be thoughtful about what you want to do with your career and make sure that what you devote yourself to in your career is what drives you. If it's not, you're always going to second guess yourself when you have to make tough choices.
My second bit of advice is if you're going to pick a partner, you need to pick a partner that is just as focused on your goals as you are. I married another lawyer, Trey Cox, and we are a team. He prioritized my professional choices as much as I prioritized his. And we divided up our family duties in ways that made it possible for us to excel at our careers. Sometimes that meant he was working hard and I was handling family matters, and other times it meant I was working hard and he was handling family matters. I never second guessed my career choices because my husband was always supportive of them. And it made all the difference to me in my career. Everyone needs a good teammate to help them through – choose wisely.
LD: Is there a case or a matter that stands out for you while you've been in private practice that is sort of a favorite or particularly memorable?
ENC: Well, I have a list of cases that I absolutely love and that have been highly successful. The first big assignment I got shortly after I joined Kirkland, I was hired as an independent counsel for the city of Dallas. They had a major data security and deletion event, and it impacted quite a bit of the Dallas police department's criminal files. The city council needed to hire independent counsel to advise them and to investigate it, and then create a report that would be released to the city to inspire confidence that the City was doing the right thing. I was very lucky to get picked for that, and it was a lot of work, and I think the team at Kirkland did a great job. I believe we presented the city council, the mayor, and all the stakeholders in a way that I am proud of. And we released our findings to the public, and got a lot of positive feedback.
LD: What are you most excited about in your work right now?
ENC: We started a program here where we were working with the DA's office on human trafficking and domestic violence victims and helping them work to expunge their records. Certainly, domestic violence victims get caught up in similar charges. And human trafficking victims are often charged with prostitution, theft – a whole host of charges. It really restricts their ability to get their life on track, get a job, get clean credit, get somewhere to live. Having a record that is expunged from these types of crimes when they are eligible is really important. So we've got a bunch of lawyers here that are interested in working closely with the DA’s office on that effort. We call it Project Second Chance here internally at the firm. I'm proud of that. It’s just getting started, but I am proud of the people we have helped.