Kamala Harris' BigLaw husband will leave DLA Piper; experts had warned of ethics issues

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Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff

Kamala Harris and Douglas Emhoff in 2017. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The husband of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a partner at DLA Piper, will sever all ties with the law firm before the inauguration in January.

Douglas Emhoff took a leave of absence from DLA Piper in August. Now he will be winding down his work at the firm, a campaign spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law.

“Mr. Emhoff is working with the Biden-Harris transition team to develop the portfolio he will focus on to support the work of the administration,” the spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law. She did not say whether Emhoff will take on a different legal role.

Emhoff had mentioned an interest in pro bono work during a virtual fundraiser with late-night TV host David Letterman, but he has been vague about his plans, the Washington Post reported in October.

Emhoff’s decision follows questions about ethics and appearance issues that would arise if he remained a partner at DLA Piper. Bloomberg Law and the Washington Post had stories on the issues.

Emhoff has represented companies including Merck, Abbott Laboratories, Walmart, the arms dealer Dolarian Capital and movie production houses, according to the articles. DLA Piper has lobbying clients that include Qualcomm Inc., Comcast Corp., the Raytheon Co. and the government of Afghanistan.

Federal law bans government employees from substantially participating in matters in which they have a financial interest, but the law doesn’t cover the president and vice president, according to Bloomberg Law. And it’s unclear whether other ethics laws can be constitutionally enforced against the president and vice president, the story reports.

Other lawyers have made concessions for their spouses’ ambitions.

Marilyn Quayle, the wife of Vice President Dan Quayle in the George H.W. Bush administration, gave up her legal career for her husband. She was likely “never entirely happy about it,” her confidant, Christian Josi, told the Washington Post. “But she sucked it up for the country and her husband.”

Jon White of Cravath, Swaine & Moore took another tack. He gave up his partnership and became of counsel when his wife, Mary Jo White, became chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Such a scenario typically requires the lawyer to be walled off to avoid learning information about the law firm’s clients.

If Emhoff had taken that route, he could still have faced a perception problem, according to Richard Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School who was an ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration.

“I think it would be nuts for him to stay at the firm,” Painter told Bloomberg Law before the announcement that Emhoff would be leaving. Harris “would consistently be faced with the allegation that people are hiring the firm to get something out of the administration.”

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