Fierce Partisan Climate Prompts Campaign Attorneys to Exit Firms

By Stephanie Russell-Kraft

When Greenberg Traurig attorney Barry Richard was helping to lead the legal team representing George W. Bush in the Florida recount case that decided the 2000 presidential election, he stayed at the firm through the litigation ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the national political climate is far more polarized now. This year, Richard took leave from Greenberg Traurig to represent Democrat Andrew Gillum, whose own bid for Florida governor went to a recount as well.

“Some of the lawyers were concerned that some clients might react adversely to it,” Richard told Bloomberg Law of his decision. “My attitude was, why do it and take the chance?”

The firm doesn’t have any official policy requiring lawyers to step away for potentially controversial clients, and Richard said it was his decision.

“One of the main things you want in a law firm is to maintain pleasant relations among the lawyers,” said Richard. “And that’s been a high point I’ve always loved about this firm. We don’t get in arguments among the lawyers.”

The leave of absence means that Richard isn’t getting paid by the firm and isn’t covered by its liability insurance.

Stephen Gillers, who teaches ethics at NYU School of Law, said these kinds of temporary departures are typically a business decision rather than an ethical one.

“A firm may not want to be associated with being for or against a particular candidate or party,” he told Bloomberg Law. “Or it may worry that opposition to a candidate may cause headaches later if that candidate prevails and the firm or its clients want him or her, now in office, to take certain action.”

Gillum, who trailed Republican Ron DeSantis on Friday by approximately 0.41 points following a machine recount, hadn’t conceded the governor’s race. Also in Florida, a recount battle in the hotly contested senatorial race between Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Rick Scott has already spurred litigation.

“If they find there’s some huge number of ballots people have messed up in the Senate race, then that might tell us there’s something going on that might affect our race as well,” Richard said.

At this stage in his representation, Richard is only offering advice as the recount concluded Thursday with his candidate still behind by more than 33,000 votes. But if Gillum does decide to sue to resume the count, Richard would be lead counsel, he said.

Richard said the uncertainty of litigation in political campaigns factored into his decision to represent Gillum, because “you don’t know when you take it whether it’s going to be all consuming or not.”

He specializes in complex commercial litigation where he said he can control “what’s happening most of the time” along with the court.

“That’s one big difference in a political campaign. Nobody has control,” Richard said.