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Mary Jo White, chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in the Obama administration for nearly four years, is rejoining her old law firm.
Debevoise & Plimpton announced Feb. 15 that the 69-year-old lawyer will return as senior chair.
As senior chair, White will maintain a full-time legal practice advising boards of directors and clients on government investigations and litigation. She will also have what she described as an “advisory role” to firm management.
“I’m not involved in day-to-day management,” said White in an interview. “Michael Blair is our great presiding partner. They run the firm. But there is a management team that’s broader than that… I hope to be a positive contributor to that discussion.”
Previously, White was chair of the firm’s litigation department from 2002 to 2013. There, she worked alongside Andrew Ceresney, who joined her at the SEC when White was nominated by President Barack Obama to lead the agency in April 2013. In January, the same month White stepped down from her role as chair of the SEC, Ceresney also returned to the Wall Street firm.
White explained that she decided to return to Debevoise after briefly considering other options.
“I basically worked straight through the 20th of January,” said White. “I didn’t turn my attention to what I would do next until then, but I did get a phone call from Michael (Blair, the firm’s presiding partner) and Bruce (Yannett, deputy presiding partner) to urge me in their interest of my coming back to the firm.”
White said that she considered her future plans over a couple of plane trips to and from the West Coast “to figure out whether what I wanted to do was practice law, or do something else.”
White said that other law firms had presented her with job opportunities, and there were employment opportunities outside of practicing law entirely, although she declined to provide specifics.
“Pretty quickly, within a couple of days, I decided I wanted to practice law and wanted to do that full-time,” she said. “Then, the decision was easy to come back to Debevoise. It has one of the preeminent white-collar defense practices. It’s the core of what I do.”
The 615-lawyer firm recently represented Rolls-Royce in resolutions with the U.K., U.S. and Brazil regarding bribery and corruption involving intermediaries in overseas markets; FanDuel in investigations by the New York Attorney General; Michael Pearson, the former CEO of Valeant Pharmaceuticals in SEC and DOJ investigations over possible fraud charges, as well as congressional inquiries; and PIMCO in an SEC settlement related to charges that it misled investors about the performance of one of its first actively managed exchange-traded funds and failed to accurately value certain fund securities.
At Debevoise, partners earn on average about $2.6 million a year, according to financial figures in The American Lawyer from 2016.
Asked what law firms and clients should expect from the SEC under her successor, Sullivan & Cromwell partner Jay Clayton, White suggested not to expect many drastic changes.
“Both enforcement at the SEC and DOJ I think will remain quite strong, and the market will remain quite strong for law firms,” said White. “Jay Clayton, who has been nominated to be my successor, will be a strong leader.”
White pointed to an initiative she led during her time with the SEC to enhance investor disclosures, which she expects will be continued under Clayton’s leadership.
Before her time with Debevoise in 2002, White served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for nearly nine years. She was the only woman to serve in that position in the more than 200-year history of the SDNY office.
“Simply put, Mary Jo is a giant in the legal profession,” said Michael W. Blair, Debevoise’s presiding partner. “Few, if any, other lawyers have garnered the respect and admiration that Mary Jo has throughout her distinguished career.”
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