What's Up With Lanny
Covington’s Lanny Breuer spent two-and-a-half years as special counsel to President Clinton during impeachment.The Columbia double grad (Law ’85) was a prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office until 1989 when he came to Covington, and had been a partner for a year-and-a-half when he moved to the White House. He came back to the partnership afterward and now co-heads the firm’s White Collar Defense and Investigations practice.
Lanny in his office with us last week.
How’d you wind up working for President Clinton?
In 1993, I represented Justin Elzie, the openly gay Marine who was removed from duty, in his lawsuit against the Secretary of Defense. We were victorious and I got the attention of the White House Counsels’ office. Sometime later, Jack Quinn, the White House Counsel, was looking for someone with civil and criminal experience.
What were you hired to do?
Originally for the campaign finance investigation that Senator Thompson was gearing up for in the Government Reform committee. He was high profile, charismatic, and planning to do it in the old Watergate hearing room, so there was a sense it would be grand. My job was to head up the team of legal, PR, and legislative people to defend the President.
How’d you relate to the other Lanny?
It was very confusing to outsiders. Lanny Davis handled press. I was on Face the Nation and Bob Schieffer got me wrong.
What skills from your practice helped in the White House?
Attention to detail. And the sense of confidence that if you’ve done the best job you can, you can feel comfortable even when you’re getting criticized. I worked a lot with Ken Starr’s people on a day to day basis, and my experience in litigation was useful, especially big white collar cases—reviewing documents as to what’s responsive and what’s not, keeping your client informed, and preparing witnesses. But the White House had an antiquated system for keeping track of documents.
Lanny and wife Nancy with son Ben, left, and Sam last month on the island of Santorini in the Greek Isles. They even took the two grandmas. Lanny says he felt like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s European Vacation behind the wheel of his minivan.
What had you not learned?
About being in a fishbowl, the extraordinary media scrutiny, and the partisan nature of it. At Covington, I had always tried to convince the press why they should be interested in our case. At the White House, I tried to convince them why they should not be interested. You need an ear for the public.
Did you have any of that experience?
Ironically, just in my New York prosecutor’s job. For example, in one almost comical case I was in the complaint room one day and got assigned a case to prosecute a naturalist who led tours in Central Park and would show visitors edible plants and they would eat them. A ranger who was very formal, with boots up to his hips, came in and said they had just done a sting operation where two rangers dressed up as Columbia grad students grabbed the guy and arrested him. I had to figure out what law he broke. Johnny Carson put the case in his monologue. I learned a lot from that.
Has your practice changed as a result of your experience?
Yes, I get higher profile and bigger clients. And I do more Congressional investigations. And I’m co-chair of what’s become a big white collar practice.
How much does Covington encourage public service?
We have a long tradition. We were ranked number one in pro bono. They threw me a party when I left. Maybe they were just happy to see me go.
Why doesn’t everyone do it? It helped your career.
The White House is 7 days a week, 12 to even 18 hours a day. It’s not for everyone. And a lot of people told me not to take the job. Some people reminded me of John Dean’s experience.
Did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer?
I pretty much always knew. I applied to law school right out of college but deferred to spend two years teaching American history and coaching tennis and rugby at The American School in Lugano, Switzerland. That was a phenomenal experience – skiing in St. Moritz and travelling all over Europe – but Columbia wrote me and said I needed start law school or I’d have to re-apply.
You’re from Queens. What attracted you to Washington?
My wife, Nancy Robinson Breuer, is also a lawyer and she liked Washington and since I always thought I might not like private practice, DC seemed like a good place because of all the opportunities for lawyers in government and politics. So we moved here in 1989 and haven’t looked back. And I've loved practicing. Nancy is now the Deputy General Counsel at the National Gallery and we have two boys, ages 12 and 15.
What trends do you see in law firms these days?
Firms are increasingly being run like corporations and they must fight to keep their souls. Profitability is, of course, important but firms must not let the bottom line affect morale. We must continue to provide a challenging and interesting work environment.
And in white collar litigation?
Business is good and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Sarbanes-Oxley, increased SEC activity and other federal enforcement does not seem to be going away. That creates a lot of work for practices like mine.