Legal titan Jim Walden’s career sits at a cross-section of worlds. The lead-painted living room of a low-income Brooklyn apartment. The hidden secrets of a star-studded underground poker ring. The inner workings of organized crime families. He’s been on both sides of legal battles with former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and has pioneered international political battles. In all these arenas, Walden is in his element.
That differing practice is intentional: Walden bridges disparate parts of his career. Walden came up as an Assistant U.S. Attorney at the Department of Justice in Brooklyn. As part of the organized crime unit for more than eight years, he brought cases against major Mafia families, including prosecuting nearly 20 people associated with the murder of Staten Island housewife Judith Shemtov. Fighting for public safety, Walden thrived.
But, with a wife and new baby on the way, it was time to move to private practice – for about five years, he anticipated. First, Walden joined O’Melveny & Myers, where he led the White-Collar and Regulatory Defense Group. Four years later, he transitioned to Gibson Dunn, where he similarly led the firm’s white-collar defense and investigations practice groups, as well as working in antitrust, crisis management and pro bono.
While at Gibson Dun, Walden represented Molly Bloom, who had been charged for her part in organizing a $100M underground celebrity poker game. Walden’s arguments famously achieved a lighter sentence for Bloom, with no prison time. Bloom’s memoir about the experience, “Molly’s Game,” later became a 2017 film directed by Aaron Sorkin. He also defended the CEO of American International Group regarding his alleged role in the 2008 financial crisis, successfully staving off any charges. His extensive white-collar defense and investigations practice makes Walden a trusted advisor for corporations involved in bet-the-company litigation.
Though he enjoyed his work in private practice, Walden still hungered for work that he says “scratches the itch for social justice and fairness.” So, along with building a now-famous white-collar practice, Walden began bringing what he calls “good government” cases – matters that combat abuse, negligence and corruption locally and worldwide.
In one of his early cases in this area, Walden partnered with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund in one of the first lawsuits on behalf of an individual who was fired from a job where being a male or female is a job qualification. Walden secured a win for his client, with the employer agreeing to actionable reforms as part of the settlement. “There’s so much need for people in that space,” Walden says. “El'Jai Devoureau, our client, was just a fantastic person, and so courageous.”
With such passion for his social justice-focused cases, Walden briefly thought about moving back to government work – until a discussion with his wife led to the realization that he could create a more tailored avenue through his own firm. In 2015, he and fellow former AUSAs Timothy Macht and Sean Haran set out to create now-prominent boutique Walden Macht & Haran. White-collar defense is a significant arm of the firm’s practice, but Walden is also able to tie in his commitment to social justice through a dedicated pro bono, civil rights and whistleblower practice.
One of those cases hit close to home. Asked his reason for becoming a lawyer, Walden says, “I had an overactive sense of justice, having grown up in a pretty tough town facing a bunch of bullies.” It’s natural, then, that in 2016 he’d take on the New York City Department of Education in a federal class-action suit focusing on the bullying crisis. The lawsuit alleged that the DOE failed to sufficiently protect students from bullying and did not allow for a safe learning environment for all. Two years later, the suit was settled, and under the terms of the settlement the DOE was required to create a new electronic system for reporting and investigating cases of bullying and made it easier for students to transfer schools if they feel unsafe. “That case had a special resonance for me,” Walden says.
Then, there’s the political side. Walden’s presence in New York politics is well-known: He partnered with former mayor Bill de Blasio in a fight against the closure of a Brooklyn hospital; he took on a case petitioning to throw out the current Assembly map under claims of gerrymandering; and he received praise from former governor Andrew Cuomo after fighting for additional funds for New York City Housing Authority. Recognizing the risks to tenants’ health, the then-governor granted $250M in funds and created an independent monitor for the organization under an emergency order.
In the last few years, he’s taken that political work to a larger stage. Walden is well-known for his work representing whistleblower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, former director of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory, in claims that Russia had been participating in doping in international sporting events. The revelations led to Russia’s ban from the 2018 Winter Olympics (which was later reversed). Walden was then instrumental in creating the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, which allows the U.S. to prosecute doping systems at international sporting events and was signed into law under President Trump.
Asked his reason for becoming a lawyer, Walden says, 'I had an overactive sense of justice, having grown up in a pretty tough town facing a bunch of bullies.'
Now, Walden is setting his sights on combating transnational repression. Recently, the firm filed a federal RICO suit on behalf of Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan and his sister, Areej Al-Sadhan, after the former was captured by the Saudi Arabian government following a series of critical tweets. The suit, which Walden is bringing against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Twitter (now known as X) and others, alleges that Twitter did not prevent the Saudi government from using the company’s technology to access critics’ personal information due to the government’s significant financial investment in the platform. “We’re hoping we can get people interested in helping us convince Congress that we're now at a stage that this is spreading around the globe,” Walden says.
Walden is also vocal in political commentary, writing op-eds and making TV appearances on the current state of U.S. affairs – namely, at the moment, the legal troubles of former President Trump. As far back as last year, Walden publicly argued that a RICO suit would be the best way to tell the story of Jan. 6th – the tactic now seen in the case against Trump and others in Georgia. “We're at a really scary crossroads in the United States,” says Walden. “There is rampant corruption, and somehow we’ve lost our ability – temporarily, I hope – to solve problems and have people with good common sense come together and find compromises.
Lawdragon: Your “good government” cases are some of the hallmarks of your practice. How did that start?
Jim Walden: The very first one was for an amazing organization called the Urban Justice Center. Because of a computer glitch in the city system, a number of people had gotten thrown off food stamps. We worked that case up all the way to just a couple of days away from trial, and then the city settled and gave people their past-due food stamps. It was a great result and a fantastic team that worked on that. I'll never forget the associate; his name is Oliver Olanoff. He did such a good job in working up the case that, frankly, the settlement was more because of his diligence and perseverance than anything I did.
LD: What an amazing first foray into that work.
Tell me a bit about your work on behalf of tenants against the New York City Housing Authority.
JW: In the first of those cases, I had two superstars on my team, Jake Gardener and Rachel Brook. It was a terrible winter where so many people from the NYCHA community didn't have heat or hot water on top of all the other problems, like not getting their trash picked up, vermin and a backlog of repairs. But the issue we were really trying to tackle there was the lead remediation. There were so many apartments that still had lead paint. NYCHA wasn't testing them, and kids were getting sick. We got an injunction that required thousands of lead inspections.
It felt good to do that case with Jake and Rachel because they're both very social justice-oriented people. Jake, who is still my partner, was a firefighter before he was a lawyer. I find it thrilling to be able to pass on that bug to younger lawyers.
LD: Speaking of being a young lawyer – does your practice now look how you initially pictured?
JW: Oh, definitely not. I was steered on what I will now call the right path by the judge I clerked for. I told the judge that I was clerking for that my plan was to be a bankruptcy litigator. He kind of shook his head. He was a very thoughtful person. Later, he came to my desk and said, "I want you to go watch a criminal trial."
That was a formative experience in my life. The lead prosecutor was this enormous man, and his co-counsel was this woman that if she was five feet tall, I would've been shocked. They were prosecuting a violent crack gang in Philadelphia; the members of the gang were responsible for gruesome murders. I'll never forget the chill that went up my spine when I saw her closing statement. She turned to one of the defendants who had committed one of the more gruesome acts of murder and pointed at him. It was so brave and powerful. I was completely hooked from that moment forward.
LD: Was it like you expected once you entered that role?
JW: It was more than I expected in all the best ways. I had great learning experiences. I still tell young associates about some of the mistakes I made there because I found that learning from my own mistakes were some of the most valuable lessons I had.
So, in our firm, we try to give young associates the same kind of experience as we had when we were AUSAs. Our office was extremely busy. There were very few supervisors. And for the most part, you were in court by yourself.
LD: Once you got some of those initial stumbling blocks out of the way, tell me about how you ended up taking on organized crime cases.
JW: It was the greatest bully therapy that I could have imagined. I was in the narcotics unit, and my supervisor, Eric Friedberg, who's still a very dear friend of mine, knew that I had wanted to go to the organized crime section. So, he gave me a wiretap that the DEA was doing on a cell of the Lucchese Family. I loved the case. The characters were so interesting. Their crimes were deplorable. That just led me into a whole world.
LD: Fast forwarding to the present. Looking both at your work on behalf of Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov and your recent transnational repression matters that you've been taking on, what are the biggest challenges in working on such high-profile and complex cases that extend outside of the U.S.?
JW: Our laws are not built for purpose when it comes to transnational repression. I mean, it is the official policy of the United States to actively combat transnational repression, but it is not a crime. There are some crimes that can fit in some circumstances, and there's not even a civil cause of action that really fits. We found some in certain specific circumstances. But when there are motions to dismiss, there are going to be some challenging arguments because we have to use tools that were not built for that purpose.
So, we've drafted a model bill that gets at the heart of the problem by creating both a civil cause of action and a cause of action that the Department of Justice can bring to combat transnational repression. Many countries have resorted to this kind of terrorism to try to dissuade and chill the speech of people who are calling for democratic reforms.
The characters were so interesting. Their crimes were deplorable. That just led me into a whole world.
LD: Can you tell me about your current case on behalf of Abdulrahman al-Sadhan and his sister, Areej al-Sadhan?
JW: This was a terrible situation where the transnational repression reached into the United States. Abdulrahman had a parody Twitter account. He was posting criticisms of the Saudi Arabian regime that weren't even school ground insults, but he got a bunch of followers, and the Saudi Arabian government found out. They got user identification by essentially corrupting Twitter. Once Saudi Arabia got that information, it arrested and took actions against a number of critics. In Abdulrahman's case, they arrested him at work. He worked for the Red Crescent, an arm of the Red Cross. They arrested him, tortured him, detained him, put him on a show trial and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.
Our other client, Sherif Osman, was arrested in the UAE. He was a bit more fortunate because the UAE, I think, was a bit more cognizant of the international ramifications of having arrested an American citizen. Sherif went to Dubai to visit his family with his fiancé because he can’t go back to Egypt, where he’s a target. Lo and behold, he was arrested in front of his family at a restaurant on what he was told was an Interpol Red Notice. After 46 days, he was finally released. But the entire time he was terrified that he was going to be extradited to Egypt where he certainly would've been tortured.
The important part of these cases, other than getting justice for the victims we represent, is shining a light on how terrible our tools are to wage the fight that the U.S. government says we're supposed to be fighting against transnational repression. If we don't take a leadership position and actually get the right tools in place, it's just going to get worse.
LD: Do you feel that your work on the Russian doping scandal informs this international work now?
JW: It was helpful to learn how weak civil society institutions can be. I'm not talking about the ones that combat transnational repression and call it out, because they've been incredibly effective. I'm thinking about organizations like the International Olympic Committee. Russia was involved in the most explosive, sophisticated doping system for years. The IOC essentially gave them a slap on the wrist a couple of times.
So, the common thread here is that lawyers can do a lot of good in the world, and one of the things they have to do is to identify where there are weaknesses in the law, then create and advocate for new alternatives. For instance, getting the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act through Congress, with which I had a tremendous amount of help – not just from my team, but from good government groups, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and an incredible communications company. It was a huge team effort, but it was also a massive achievement and something that I feel really good about.
Lawyers can do a lot of good in the world, and one of the things they have to do is to identify where there are weaknesses in the law, then create and advocate for new alternatives.
LD: You've had a wide-ranging career. What’s the common thread that you find fulfilling about it all?
JW: Helping people. Whether people like me or they don't like me, I don’t think anyone would dispute that I always try to help people – even those who many not be my favorite people. When somebody has a need that I think that I can help with, I want to help. I can probably only do one thing well, and that's find solutions.