INTERVIEW: IRV NATHAN (JHU ’64), LITIGATING ATTORNEY
Irvin Nathan is a retired partner at the firm of Arnold & Porter, Kaye Scholer. He counseled and represented individuals, corporations, and professional services organizations in complex civil and criminal litigation and investigations. He also counseled clients on legal ethics, Congressional investigations, District of Columbia affairs, and other issues related to state and municipal governments. He is a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.
Mr. Nathan most recently served as the Attorney General for the District of Columbia from 2011 to 2014. Prior to his service as DC Attorney General, he was the General Counsel of the US House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011. Mr. Nathan served as Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General at the US Department of Justice (1993-94) and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Enforcement in the Criminal Division (1979-81). He also served as Chair of the District of Columbia Bar Legal Ethics Committee and Vice Chair of the DC Board of Professional Responsibility which is appointed by the DC Court of Appeals to oversee the attorney disciplinary system in the District of Columbia.
In his more than 35 years in the private practice of law, Mr. Nathan represented US Senators; US Congressmen; a sitting Cabinet member; a Secretary of the Navy; the Commissioner of Baseball; CEOs and CFOs of Fortune 500 companies; law firms and partners; accounting firms and partners; and numerous corporations and members of their Boards. While DC Attorney General, Mr. Nathan was a member of the National Association of Attorneys General and the International Municipal Lawyers Association. He is a member of the Society of Attorneys General Emeritus. He is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and has taught as a visiting professor at The Hebrew University.
Mr. Nathan is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University Law School, and served as law clerk for the Honorable Simon E. Sobeloff, US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Describe a day in the life of a Litigating Attorney:
In almost 50 years as a practicing lawyer, working both in private practice at a large law firm and in a series of federal and local government jobs, what I found most rewarding was that no two days were the same. Some days are consumed by travelling to meet new clients, learning about their problems, studying a new industry, researching applicable laws and suggesting imaginative solutions to assist them. Other days are spent in court, presenting arguments on behalf of the clients, questioning favorable witnesses and cross-examining opposing witnesses, and waiting for juries or judges to render a decision. Still other days are spent researching the law and writing appellate briefs in preparation for oral arguments in courts of appeals either challenging or defending decisions reached at the trial court level. And other times I was conducting internal investigations for companies or governments, reviewing documents, interviewing witnesses and preparing written reports to Boards of Directors or government agencies or other responsible authorities to document what our investigation had established.
Over the course of a career, I was fortunate enough to be involved in several major litigations, including a six-week trial in federal court in Chicago defending the Commissioner of Baseball in a suit brought against him by the owner of the Oakland A’s after the Commissioner had vetoed the sale of three star players to the Yankees and the Red Sox; the prosecution in federal courts of a U.S. Senator and several Congressmen who took bribes from undercover FBI agents; the defense of a law firm partner falsely accused of violating federal criminal laws; the defense of suits against a major multinational corporation brought by governments in South America and Europe for allegedly smuggling products into those countries without paying import duties and taxes; representing the U.S. House of Representatives against senior White House officials who claimed they were immune from House subpoenas to testify; and representing the D.C. Mayor and the Chief Financial Officer of D.C. against the D.C. City Council, challenging a D.C. statute that violated both federal law and the D.C. Home Rule legislation.
One of the advantages of practicing law in the District of Columbia is the ability to go in and out of government without moving your home or disrupting your family. I went in and out of my law firm four times to take positions as Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Enforcement in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (1978-1981); Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General of the U.S. Department of Justice (1993-4); General Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives (2007-2010); and Attorney General of the District of Columbia (2011-2014). The most interesting and challenging position I held was D.C. Attorney General, where a typical day would include presiding over a staff meeting of my 10 Deputies (who were responsible for attorneys handling such things as adult and juvenile criminal proceedings; handling civil litigation brought for and against the city; protecting families and abused and neglected women and children; handling mental health litigation, including commitment proceedings; appeals both in the local and federal appellate courts; and pursuing dead beat Dads on behalf of single Moms and their children. After a staff meeting, I would be responsible for providing legal advice to the Mayor and his cabinet secretaries, meeting with litigating teams to map out strategy to deal with particular cases, responding to press inquiries and making presentations to constituents in the city to explain the activities of our office. Other days I would be testifying before the City Council to advocate for the Mayor’s position on a bill affecting the administration of justice, defending the budget requests for our office or responding to specific inquiries by City Council members who were carrying out their oversight responsibilities. The great diversity of tasks made this job the most challenging and demanding that I held among a large number of interesting positions I was privileged to hold over my career.
What initially attracted me to this field, and what are some of the rewards of a career in the law?
At Hopkins, I was a history major and a budding journalist. I was co-editor-in-chief of the Newsletter and the host of a weekly call-in radio sports talk show on WJHU. In my senior year, I debated between going on to graduate school in history, going to a journalism graduate school or applying for a position at a newspaper. I decided that history graduate school would be too academic and would keep me out of current-day affairs. I also concluded that journalism would not pay very much and might lead to a path that would ultimately prove monotonous, covering the same beat every day. I had seen some of that while working summers for the Baltimore Sun. In the era of President Kennedy, I was thinking about a career that could have me involved in governmental affairs, prove challenging and interesting, and afford a good living. While there were no practicing lawyers in my family, I had read books about Clarence Darrow, seen Perry Mason television shows, and seen such movies as To Kill A Mocking Bird and Inherit the Wind. I concluded that going to law school would provide the most options involving a career that would prove intellectually challenging (like pursuing an academic career in history); allow me to be involved in government (as journalism might); and provide a decent living (unlike what I perceived a career in journalism would do).
The rewards have exceeded my expectations. I was fortunate to land an excellent judicial clerkship after law school. I clerked for a kind judge, who proved to be an excellent role model, since he had had a distinguished career in both government service and private practice. Judge Simon Sobeloff had been U.S. Attorney in Maryland, City Solicitor for Baltimore, U.S. Solicitor General, Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals and Chief Judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In addition, he had founded a law firm that served not only commercial clients but also civil rights plaintiffs. He was a good teacher to his clerks and a craftsman of carefully written, literate opinions. Thereafter, I was hired by the law firm of Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., which not only represented large commercial clients but also had a long history of pro bono service, including representing Hopkins professor Owen Lattimore and many others challenged in the McCarthy era. The firm had also represented Clarence Gideon in the classic Supreme Court case (Gideon v. Wainwright) that established that every criminal defendant is entitled to the right to counsel. As a result, the rewards of my career were that I was able to serve my country, my community and the bar, help individuals and corporations and other organizations navigate dicey problems and earn a good living for my family. I have had interesting intellectual challenges; I have travelled throughout this country and abroad; I have met and represented very interesting people, including U.S. Senators, other federal and local officials, corporate titans and sports poobahs, top professionals, and individuals caught up in difficult legal straits. I also was able to teach at law schools in D.C., California and Israel. It turned out to be a very good choice for me.
What are some of the downsides of the law? Compare the reality of your profession to the picture you had of it while in school.
Some of the downsides of the practice of law stem from increased competition among large law firms and the switch in emphasis from a profession to a business and the quest for large profits, rather than professional and psychic satisfaction. Over the past three decades or so, as firms have gotten larger and extended geographically to multiple markets, there is an increased focus on business development or “rainmaking” as it is commonly referred to. This means that lawyers have to function as sales people, convincing potential clients that they and their firms are best suited to represent them. While some folks relish this aspect of the practice, I did not, much preferring to deal with the legal problems of clients, finding creative solutions and appearing in court to argue on the clients’ behalf. In addition, since the prevailing way that firms bill for their services is on an hourly basis, lawyers in private practice must keep detailed time records, which I found a distasteful (but necessary) chore. Finally, for younger lawyers going into the profession now with large law firms, there can be a lot of tedious work reviewing documents and electronic files. In bigger litigations, with many lawyers on the team, the junior attorneys are often assigned to go through massive amounts of documents and e-mails to find materials that are relevant to the case, both to produce them to the opponents and to use them affirmatively fin their clients’ behalf. Also, in this day of large cases with large teams of lawyers, it is harder for younger lawyers to get chances to take depositions and get to stand up in court to present arguments for their clients. These more enjoyable tasks are often taken by young or even senior partners. This is why many young lawyers take their initial jobs in government or smaller firms. There downside risks are lack of adequate training and lack of resources. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, for really dedicated individuals the upsides outweigh them and should not discourage the committed from following their dreams to be a lawyer.
The reality, as I have just described it, is far different from what I envisioned in law school, based on the TV shows and movies I mentioned earlier. In the entertainment world, the focus is on the trial scenes, where brilliant cross-examination or fiery closing arguments carry the day. In the real world, a lot of time is spent before one gets to the courthouse, doing factual investigation, reviewing documents, researching the law and skirmishing over pre-trial discovery matters. Often, of course, cases are settled by negotiations, so one does not even get to go to trial. Also many disputes are resolved by alternative methods, such as mediation or arbitration, so jury trials have become rarer than one would have surmised from either law school or fiction.
What advice do you have for an undergraduate interested in pursuing a legal career?
The first thing I would suggest is to get the broadest, deepest undergraduate education available. The law reaches into all industries and areas of human endeavors, so one can never know in advance what the nature of the kinds of issues you will face as a lawyer. Having a broad-based background, with both intellectual curiosity and excellent research skills, is the best way to prepare for a legal career I would also recommend working on writing skills, including studying literary masters. Much of the practice of law consists of written submissions and the clearer the writing with logical analysis, the better able the lawyer will be able to succeed .If it’s available, I would recommend a course in American Constitutional history. I took such a course from Prof. Carl Swisher when at Hopkins, and not only found the subject matter interesting but I also liked the case method of learning. I enjoyed reading the leading opinions of our Justices, trying to figure out the facts of the case, the holdings of the court, and the competing arguments that the lawyers on both sides had made. Also, if possible before committing to law school, an undergraduate might try to get a summer job in a clerical or messenger position in a law firm or government legal office to observe what lawyers actually do. A college graduate might also think of seeking employment as a paralegal at a law firm or government legal office to get an even closer look and a better feel for what the practice of law really is. One thing I would caution against is specializing in a substantive area in college in the expectation that this will inform the student’s future practice of law. A student might think that he or she wants to be an environmental lawyer and so take as many environmental classes as possible. Life as a lawyer, as in many other aspects, takes too many unexpected twists and turns to be able to predict even after graduation from law school exactly what a career in the law will involve.
Mr. Nathan would be pleased to communicate with any Hopkins student who is interested in pursuing a legal career. He can be reached via email at: IrvN8@aol.com.Tags: 2017, Newsletter, Prelaw