Masters of the Game

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Even in the rarefied air of Washington, D.C., lawyers are lawyers: There are some you trust with your everyday business, and some you trust with your life. In Washington, there is no surer way to know that someone powerful or well-connected is in trouble than to note that they are now represented by Williams & Connolly. Whether it be Iran-Contra or Watergate, the Clinton impeachment or the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, the DUI arrest of a politician’s wife or the defection of Elian Gonzalez, the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy or the prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens, someone at Williams & Connolly is involved in the case. In Masters of the Game: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Firm, Washington-based author Kim Eisler analyzes the unorthodox origins and breathtaking resumé of one of the nation’s truly elite firms.

Many American cities are defined by the names on their tallest buildings: the banks of Charlotte, the insurance companies of Hartford or Jacksonville, the retail world of Chicago with its Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and Wrigley Building. In Washington, no building can be more than 13 stories, the height of the U.S. Capitol.

Since architects can’t go up, they feel like they have to use every inch, so it’s a striking building that takes up 80 percent of its block near 12th and F streets—there are trees and an open area with tables and chairs.

Inside the giant lobby are Italian marble floors, mahogany walls and moldings of bird’s eye maple. The name over the door reads Edward Bennett Williams Building. And next to the entrance is a small plaque with the name of the major tenant, who occupies the 250,000 square feet of usable nonretail office space, the Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly.

On April 7, 2009, a loaded white van pulled up outside the building. There was no uniformed concierge at the curb; Washington is anything but a doorman town.

From the shotgun, the front right seat by the driver, a slight, angular man with dark glasses and puffy white hair, his jaw locked tightly in a serious but satisfied grip, jumped out and slid open the vehicle’s middle door.

Out spilled newly exonerated Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, his wife, Catherine, two daughters and several attorneys, mostly toting thick briefcases and giant smiles. They were fresh from the federal courthouse where high-profile corruption charges against Stevens had, after months of litigation, been dropped.

Stevens’ principal attorney, however, still stood stoically by the door he had just released, a scowl on his face. He was, in his own words, in a “silent rage.”

Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., who had turned 67 just three weeks earlier, had never been a young-looking man. His high school classmates back at Providence Country Day School most often used the word fearsome to describe the boy whom the yearbook editors called “our esteemed leader.”

For the last 35 years with only one exception, the mention of which could send Sullivan into high-pitched paroxysms of anger, there had not been a single guilty verdict for one of his clients that he had not been able to undo or finesse. Only one of Sullivan’s clients had ever seen the inside of a prison, despite the fact that, Sullivan says, “by the time someone comes to me, they are pretty far up the creek.”

Though Stevens had been convicted of multiple felonies by a federal jury in Washington some weeks earlier, Sullivan had never doubted for a moment that the conviction would be overturned and Stevens would never spend a day in jail.

There had been a myth about Sullivan. It went like this: In any case Brendan Sullivan tries, there is a greater chance the federal or state prosecutor will go to jail than his client. On the surface such a notion seemed totally counterintuitive, a lawyerly exaggeration. Yet in this case, the prosecutors were themselves headed for investigation for prosecutorial misconduct.

But for the firm with which Sullivan had been associated for more than 40 years, it was simply another day at the office.


Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Edward Bennett Williams
Photo by Bettmann/Corbis

According to bar association records, there are some 100,000 lawyers around this city. A good many of them deal in regulatory work, but there are real estate lawyers, contentious divorce lawyers (a small but busy band), labor lawyers, employment lawyers, trade advisers and, of course, noisy white-collar defense lawyers—the guys you call when the FBI or the IRS is going through your trash.

And if you walk around Williams & Connolly’s world in downtown Washington and you happen to be familiar with the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, you would notice that the names on the squattest but most substantial buildings are those of powerful national law firms: Venable, DLA Piper, Winston & Strawn, O’Melveny & Myers, Hogan & Hartson. Each is the name of a giant law firm with hundreds, even thousands, of lawyers.

But you don’t have to walk far in the Edward Bennett Williams Building to find connections to virtually every corner of power on the planet.

Upstairs there were old phone messages from Sullivan’s client Dick Grasso, the former head of the New York Stock Exchange; from dozens of fellow attorneys being sued for malpractice; from CEOs of giant corporations; from mischievous tech titans under scrutiny and prosecution by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Sullivan was, in simple terms, the most highly sought-after criminal defense attorney in the United States. It was a reputation he had worked hard to build, and while he was not the sort to toot his own horn, or even to put out a news release, it was richly satisfying to contemplate the power and glory shooting outward from this place, an influence not just geographic but one that crosses disciplines from politics to business to sports and, naturally, to law. Past and present partners at Williams & Connolly spent their time picking Supreme Court judges, counseling U.S. presidents and foreign leaders, arranging media and press personalities like pieces on a game board, and even winning World Series games in baseball.

Less than a mile to the west of where Sullivan and Stevens stood on that day, President Barack Obama’s White House counsel—at the time, Gregory Craig—was one of Sullivan’s former partners at Williams & Connolly.

Craig was busy considering who he might recommend as the next justice for the Supreme Court. Among the top candidates, and a few blocks to the south, was Elena Kagan, the new solicitor general of the United States. She was once dean of Harvard Law School and, like Craig, a former lawyer at Williams & Connolly.

To Sullivan’s north just a few blocks sat the offices of the Washington Post. For several decades this most important, influential daily newspaper had been a client of Williams & Connolly’s. The paper’s new publisher, Katharine Weymouth, like Kagan, was once a lawyer with Williams & Connolly.

On the van ride from the courthouse, the trademarks and nameplates of corporate America flashed by, and he could recount the names of former partners connected with the biggest of them. Richard Hoffman at Marriott. Judith Miller, general counsel of Bechtel. Nicole Seligman in the corporate boardroom of Sony. Sven Holmes, the public face of controversial accounting giant KPMG. Jeff Kindler, the chairman and CEO of Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company and the keeper of both Lipitor and Viagra.

On the side of a bus was an advertisement for Washington’s Major League Baseball team. Baseball’s hottest executive, Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, had been a Williams & Connolly partner for three decades, bringing the firm’s magic to baseball’s unluckiest—some say cursed—team.

And up above, on the 11th floor, partner Robert Barnett paced his own corner office. He had impressive clients to contemplate. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had come to America to teach and lecture; Laura Bush could be on the phone any minute. Sarah Palin, still governor of Alaska, was calling about a book that might help fund a presidential run in 2012. Barnett would have to put her on hold if former President George W. Bush called about his memoir, as he might at any time. The television in his office was on mute, but he would not have to wait long to view the faces of more clients: Wolf Blitzer, Katie Couric, Chris Wallace, George Will, Bob Woodward and Alan Greenspan.

Not far from Barnett’s office a floor below was the sanctum of David Kendall. As the principal attorney for Hillary and Bill Clinton, this reclusive Midwesterner perhaps kept more secrets about the powerful presidential couple than anyone else. He was chief counsel to the family of Mohamed Al Fayed, whose son had been killed in the crash with Princess Diana. Kendall was one of the pre-eminent media lawyers in the world, often knowing before anyone else what would be in papers as varied as the Washington Post and the National Enquirer, advising not just the executives who ran those publications but often the colorful personalities about whom they wrote.

But if any lawyer dazzled and epitomized Washington legal practice, it was the founder of this enigmatic law firm, Edward Bennett Williams. For a half century, from 1938 until his death in 1988, he forged many of the habits and practices, the friendships and alliances, as well as the fierce brand of litigation, that characterizes the firm that bears his name.


Edward Bennett Williams and Sen. Joseph McCarthy
Photo by Bettmann/Corbis

Williams was born in Hartford, Conn., on May 31, 1920. His father had lost his department store job in the Depression, but Williams won a scholarship to College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

In 1941, he came to Washington to attend Georgetown University Law School, but his studies were interrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was assigned to a base in Alabama. Five months after joining the Army, however, Williams was discharged. According to military records, he was deemed “a source of danger to his own life as well as the lives of others.”

Humiliated, Williams told his friends and family that he had been injured in a crash. He returned to law school, graduating in 1944.

His first job out of college was at Hogan & Hartson. In those days of mostly solo practitioners or two-man partnerships, a 10-lawyer firm like this one was considered a megafirm. There Williams studied under legendary Washington lawyer Frank Hogan. The most illustrious lawyer of his generation, Hogan hobnobbed with movie stars of the age, like Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish, and was a close friend and adviser to President Theodore Roosevelt.

For a period in the late 1920s, when the Harding administration’s Teapot Dome scandal broke, Hogan became, after Clarence Darrow, the most famous criminal lawyer in the country. He was the attorney for Edward L. Doheny, the businessman accused of paying bribes to Harding’s interior secretary, Albert Fall, for an oil lease at the Elk Hills petroleum reserve near Taft, Calif. After his surprising acquittal in 1930, Doheny wrote Hogan a thank-you check for $1 million and had a Rolls-Royce delivered to Hogan’s driveway on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington. “The jury has declared you to be what we know you are,” Hogan announced on the courtroom steps after the trial, “an honest man and an honest, patriotic citizen.”

Frank Hogan was more than merely Ed Williams’ role model. Williams had apparently cemented his future at Hogan & Hartson by marrying Hogan’s granddaughter Dorothy in 1946. He adopted Hogan’s creed that you never walk into court without knowing everything about the facts, the client, the opponent, the judge, and especially the opponent’s attorneys.

In the first case he tried as a young lawyer, Williams was asked to defend a bicyclist who had knocked down and injured a pedestrian. Williams’ successful strategy was to accuse the pedestrian—the person who was actually hurt—of failing to get out of the way. That, in a nutshell, demonstrated what would be the Williams way for the next 50 years.


Whether defending an accused criminal or representing someone who was being sued, the young Williams simply did not entertain the idea of defeat. Even when a client’s insurance company wanted to give up and agree to a settlement, he would have none of it, insisting on taking every case to its ultimate conclusion. By 1949, Williams had decided that he had earned a partnership at Hogan. He was the best lawyer there, and he had married the boss’s granddaughter. What more could he do, Williams wondered. In life, as for a trial, he had covered all the bases.

In the 1940s and ’50s, law firm partners had nice lives. They could spend a great amount of time at the Metropolitan Club just north of the White House having lunch and dispensing wisdom while the associates did all of the real hourly labor. Once you became a partner at a prestigious firm like Covington & Burling or Hogan & Hartson, you were pretty much set for life. The only thing that could upset the applecart would be productive but impatient associates suddenly demanding their fair share of what they were producing. In that regard, Edward Bennett Williams was light-years ahead of his time.

By 1949, Williams had been at Hogan & Hartson for only five years. The partnership track was a minimum of seven. Rather than make an exception and give Williams the position, Hogan & Hartson’s ruling partners brought in veteran criminal defense attorney John Sirica to head its criminal practice. In the parlance of the legal trade, Sirica would be known as a lateral partner. Sirica had no years of experience at Hogan & Hartson, but he had practiced on his own for more than seven years and thus jumped all the firm’s associates, including Williams.

Hiring a lateral was generally a slap in the face to a firm’s associates, even a grandson-in-law. And when the firm’s partners hired Sirica rather than promote their ambitious associate, Williams walked. Half a century later, Williams & Connolly would be the only major law firm in America to still have a rarely violated credo of no lateral hires. It is safe to say that Edward Bennett Williams had a long memory, one that he passed along to his protégés.

Just 29, Williams initially formed a partnership with Nicholas Chase, an established Washington lawyer, and together they moved into an office on the 10th floor of the Hill Building downtown, just a few blocks northwest of the White House.

Now on his own, Williams began representing gamblers and bottle club owners against alleged liquor law violations, particularly one called the Atlas Club. Williams began spending as much time hanging out at the club as he did defending it in court. He made friends while drinking at the Atlas Club; among them was Ben Bradlee, a young reporter from the Washington Post. But Williams’ nocturnal activities jeopardized his relationship with the more conservative-minded and less flamboyant Chase, who wanted respectability and felt that Williams was just in law for the glory.

In 1950, Williams appeared at the office and announced to Chase that they had been hired to get deported gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano back into the United States from his forced Sicilian exile. Chase was skeptical, but Williams figured the publicity would be terrific whether he won or not. Chase said he didn’t want to represent “skunks” and expressed concern that he would have to answer to his children for the type of people he represented. By the summer of 1950, Williams and Chase dissolved their partnership.

Over the years that followed, Williams’ representation of lowlife gamblers and tax evaders evolved into a higher-class practice that centered around labor union goons and Mafia figures such as Sam Giancana and Frank Costello. And just as he had become fascinated by the perpetually dark Atlas Club, Williams became enamored with the even blacker underworld. Petty criminal cases had led him to the defense of some of the most famous Mafia figures in the land. That, in turn, invariably brought Williams into contact with Washington politicians. He would often meet senators or representatives, some of them crooked, through a congressional hearing in which he was the lawyer for a suspected Communist or a suspected mobster. Later, as happens in Washington, it would be the politician who would need the lawyer, and Williams would be the first whom most would think of. In a sense, he had already auditioned before them.


Katharine Graham
Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

The most colorful and famous senator with whom Williams would become associated was Wisconsin’s Joseph McCarthy. In 1950, McCarthy was linked in a series of Drew Pearson newspaper columns to various financial improprieties. McCarthy responded by calling Pearson “a Moscow-directed character assassin” in a 37-page speech, and Pearson then sued McCarthy for $5 million.

McCarthy would eventually become one of Williams’ most notorious and steady clients. McCarthy was constantly in trouble with the IRS; this was very good news for Williams. But because of his closeness to McCarthy, Williams sensed an opportunity in representing suspected Communists who were being called up to testify on Capitol Hill, especially at the House Un-American Activities Committee, infamously known at the time as HUAC. Williams had the best “in” for representing suspected “pinkos” before Red-hunters at congressional hearings. After all, he was Joe McCarthy’s lawyer. If you wanted to get off the blacklist, who better to call than McCarthy’s friend?

In 1954, Williams was at McCarthy’s side when the Senate commenced hearings to censure him for his witchhunting conduct. Though McCarthy lost the effort to beat censure, 67-22, the publicity did wonders for his attorney. He had never gotten Lucky Luciano back from Italy, either. But Williams had learned that no one would remember whether he had won or lost a particular case, only that when there was a front-page trial in the newspapers, his was the name that would be in thick, black headlines.

In 1957, Williams was hired to defend Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa for trying to bribe a lawyer in exchange for confidential documents from a congressional committee investigating mob influence in the union. Prosecutors had photos of the lawyer handing over documents to Hoffa for cash, as well as the testimony of the attorney. Case closed.

The jury panel at the Hoffa trial, which began in the summer of 1957, was composed of eight black and four white panelists. Williams’ primary strategy was to portray the attorney, who was the chief prosecution witness, as a racist bigot who sat around in his spare time trying to investigate civil rights heroes and stop federal attempts at integration. Another Williams tactic involved the unexpected cameo appearance of boxing hero Joe Louis at the trial. In full view of the jury, the Brown Bomber walked up to Hoffa, hugged him, declared their long friendship and wished him well.

In fact, they barely knew each other, and all of Louis’ expenses were paid for by Hoffa’s friends.

Four days after the hug, the jury acquitted Hoffa after barely an hour of deliberation. Ultimately the government would win a conviction against Hoffa, but that was years later.

The McCarthy case and the Hoffa trial had made Williams the most famous and successful trial lawyer in America. He had reached the status that Frank Hogan had occupied, as the living embodiment of Clarence Darrow on the East Coast. Invariably, Williams had achieved his victories by ignoring the case against his client and by attacking the prosecutors, the police or even the court.

Williams originated what would become the trademark of his law firm—finding outrageous arguments to make when all else failed. Once, when Williams complained that a prospective client was unable to provide a single mitigating fact in his case, the client reminded Williams why he was being hired. “If I had a defense I wouldn’t need you,” the client blurted.

Among Williams’ more upscale personal clients, scattered among the riffraff, were Philip and Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post newspaper and his heiress wife, whose father had built the paper.

The paper itself was not represented by Williams & Connolly, although Williams dreamed that one day it would be. For most of its corporate work, the Post used either Covington & Burling or Rogers & Wells, a very serious law firm whose “Rogers” was William P. Rogers, the onetime Republican attorney general, later secretary of state. On a personal basis, Ed and Phil met at the Burning Tree Country Club in 1957 and became fast friends. They shared a few things in common. Graham had married the boss’s daughter, just as Williams had married his boss’s eldest granddaughter.

Williams’ marriage hadn’t quite had the pull that he had expected, while Graham had been more successful—he had married into the family of Washington’s most powerful newspaper, and when the Washington Post became a publicly traded company in the late 1940s, Graham ended up with most of the stock in the company in his own name. As Williams’ biographer Evan Thomas astutely noted, the most important thing about their relationship was that while Williams often referred to himself in psychological terms as a manic-depressive, Phil Graham was certifiably bipolar, in the worst possible way.


By 1962, Graham had become ostentatiously involved in an affair with a 27-year-old Australian, Robin Webb. At large parties Graham would grandiosely announce to a stunned audience that he was divorcing Kay to marry young Robin. Graham wanted Edward Bennett Williams to handle what would be a complicated divorce from his then-45-year-old wife.

Behind the scenes, Williams maneuvered not to destroy the marriage but to save it, constantly putting Graham’s desires on hold, telling him it was a bad time, that he would have to sober up and curb the public outbursts. Then one day while Williams was traveling, Graham came into the office and demanded that he get a new will, one that cut Katharine out completely and gave one-third of her family’s newspaper to Miss Webb.

Katharine had resolved not to give Phil a divorce until he transferred the majority of the company’s voting shares to her. She wrote later: “I was not going to lose my husband and the paper.”

When Williams returned to Washington, he added a note to the file that Graham was not competent to make or amend a will, and that the law firm had drawn the will only under duress with the intent of keeping Phil Graham from harming himself. In 1963, protecting Graham became a full-time job as his mental illness spiraled out of control. Williams said at one point, “Any will lawyer would have been horrified by the way I handled this, but if you just operate from your instincts you do better.”

After Williams persuaded Robin Webb to go home to Australia and to stop haunting the publisher, he then tore up all the wills that had left Graham’s fortune to her. Two months later, the now lonely publisher killed himself at his weekend house in Virginia. When Katharine became aware of the extraordinary efforts Williams had taken to prevent her husband’s divorcing her, she was surprised and forever grateful. He had both preserved her fortune and kept the Washington Post in her hands. It didn’t take long before Katharine Graham, Williams’ new best friend and client, was the new publisher of the Washington Post.

It was Williams who hired and groomed great lawyers like Sullivan, Kendall, Craig, Barnett and Lucchino. And Williams who created the alliances, set the hard-boiled attitudes and built the foundation of power that they have carried forward, each in their own way. And while there are limits to power, it was only on his deathbed that Williams was willing to concede.

In the days before his death, after a long struggle with cancer, Williams’ son Tony showed him a copy of a magazine article touting him as one of the most powerful men in Washington. Williams replied, “They don’t know what true power is. I’m about to see true power.”

Original publication from Masters of the Game: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Firm by Kim Eisler, Copyright ©2010. Published by Thomas Dunne Books.

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