“Servants of the Damned” is the latest book by David Enrich, the business investigations editor at The New York Times, and the first investigative work of its kind into the commercial legal industry.
Before Jones Day began lending a hand to Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, Enrich viewed the firm as a large, but “not particularly elite” midmarket firm in the U.S. But as Jones Day installed a number of its lawyers in his administration and ultimately put its name on a post-election lawsuit that sought to halt counting of ballots in Pennsylvania in 2020, he determined its story could offer an entry into how the firm—as well as its peers—wields power in the U.S.
His book delves into the inner workings of Jones Day by looking at its culture, the ways it has acted on behalf of its clients and how it became so entwined with the Trump administration.
As well as charting the history of Jones Day, Enrich explores the rapid growth of commercial law firms once they began operating as competitive business entities, thanks in part to the launch of The American Lawyer magazine.
The book paints a highly critical picture of the firm, its leadership and the way it acts for clients and influences politics. Here, the author answers questions from Law.com’s Paul Hodkinson and Dan Packel about how the idea came about and what he hopes its impact might be. Jones Day has not responded to American Lawyer’s request for comment on the book.
Paul Hodkinson: In researching this book, were there any things that were most shocking to you that you didn’t expect?
The whole episode involving what happened with their foray into India, I was really shocked by that. [Jones Day backed a former partner’s effort to launch a law firm in the country but allegedly treated it as a subsidiary, overstepping local requirements ensuring its independence.] I had sent a series of emails to [managing partner] Stephen Brogan, and I tried a couple of nice, friendly emails. And when he didn’t respond to that, I eventually tried to turn up the temperature a little bit: “I’ve been researching this thing about India, and, from what I’ve heard, it sounds pretty bad.”
Very quickly, they wrote a response. I want to be diplomatic here. The emails that partner Geoff Stewart sent and the information provided seemed completely at odds with what I understood the truth to be, and I was really surprised that even years later Jones Day’s attitude was not, “We probably could have handled that better. It was a different time. Mistakes were made.” Instead, it was doubling down on the notion that they had not erred in their handling of this, which, based on my reading of the facts, is just false.
I started to detect what seemed to me like a pattern. I was just really struck by the fact that not only they had these problems, but they were so steadfast in their refusal to acknowledge any error on their part. It’s not the way, in my experience, large business institutions usually operate.
Dan Packel: Putting aside the final part of your book that focuses on the firm’s entanglement with the Trump campaign and presidency, could you tell a similarly compelling tale about any other giant law firm?
I’ve come across stuff at Paul Weiss or Skadden or Sullivan & Cromwell and it was like, “Oh my God, man,” this is such rich material to be digging into.
To me, the difference—the reason I got interested in Jones Day—was not because of the strong managing partner, the black box [for attorney compensation], or anything like that. It was because of the Trump stuff. I was like, “Wow, they must be making a ton of money on this.”
It was only after I immersed myself that I realized a lot of the political stuff, that certainly included the Trump campaign, is really not about money at all. It’s about ideology, and pride and power more than anything, and that doesn’t fit that well, in some ways, with this notion of corporate law firms constantly chasing the almighty dollar.
PH: In the book, you talk about the defense that lawyers typically give when acting for clients that might have done something wrong, which is, “Everyone’s entitled to legal advice.” I’m curious to know where, based on your research, you feel the line can be drawn. What is acting robustly on behalf of a client because everyone will get legal advice in some way versus when something becomes a bit unethical?
There’s certainly no right—if you are Abbott Laboratories, the big health care company and maker of infant formula—to have a law firm working on your behalf to do things that federal judges say are improper. If you’re the Donald Trump campaign, you did not have a right to high-quality legal representation to advise your campaign on compliance with FEC rules or to come up with strategies to win over the mainstream, conservative wing of the Republican Party.
It’s a tough debate to have and we don’t need to have it. There’s so many examples out there of instances where Jones Day and its peers are going way above and beyond the call of what they’re obligated as lawyers under the U.S. Constitution or under any sort of ethical guidelines. They’re providing very aggressive legal services that help clients steamroll people, and that is not anything that corporate clients or anyone else for that matter is constitutionally entitled to.
PH: Is there any other book like this about the legal industry?
I was a little surprised by that. Forget about Jones Day—the Supreme Court cases in the ‘70s really revolutionized the industry [striking down state bar rules imposing fee minimums and barring legal advertising] and the legal press. None of that, as far as I can tell, has ever received a narrative treatment, and the stories are just incredible.
Even putting aside [American Lawyer founder] Steve Brill, biting his reporter during a water polo game, the story of [John] Bates and his colleague in Arizona taking on the state bar [and its ban on advertising], I just found it inspiring and surprising and deserving of a lot more attention.
DP: Are there reasons why the impact of the work that these firms do on behalf of corporate clients has been under scrutinized by the media here in the U.S.?
Part of it is just the lawyers make good sources. Also, there is this tradition of viewing lawyers through the way they used to view themselves, which is not as an industry and more as this kind of learned, sacred profession that operates at an arm’s length from normal capitalist business forces. There used to be some truth to that. But the notion that, today in the 21st century, that is anything other than an anachronism is just ridiculous.
DP: I was fascinated by your chapter on the American Lawyer but—considering how many other institutions have been transformed by a greater focus on the bottom line, and picking the health care industry as another example—wouldn’t this evolution in the legal industry have been inevitable even without the impact of the trade press?
I spent a lot of time talking to Steve Brill, who is a fascinating character, and Steve Brill accepts blame and responsibility. If you read what he wrote in the debut issue of the Am Law 50, he acknowledges it’s going to fire a starter’s pistol that’s going to set off a huge race in the industry.
There is a clear point of demarcation before and after. Some of that may be coincidental: this was also an era of globalization when big companies were going global and expanding very rapidly, law firms grew in part to accommodate this. Absent the Am Law rankings, would a lot of this happened anyway? It’s entirely possible.
PH: As a non-American, I found some of the political controversies more difficult to appreciate. I don’t know if that exposes my lack of political knowledge, but some of this stuff didn’t feel controversial necessarily, it just felt right-wing.
The counterargument would be that, from the moment Trump declared his candidacy for presidency in 2016, his presidency was predicated on a lot of demagoguery, and the Jan. 6 riots were not the surprise twist at the end of that story, they were an anticipated outcome based on a lot of the conduct that had occurred in five or six years leading up to that.
There’s no question that Jones Day lawyers were at the very top of the Justice Department and all over the White House. There’s no doubt that Jones Day tried to use those connections to benefit the firm and its clients in ways that I think a reasonable outside person would be surprised and maybe not super happy to hear.
What was interesting about the Trump representation and the immersion in the Trump administration is not necessarily that there’s something wrong with that on the face of it, but it was a very revealing look at the way the law firm and its leadership used the power of a very successful, sprawling corporate law firm to exert their muscle in Washington and exert a very powerful political presence there.
Everywhere you look these days it is wielding power in very profound ways, from the fact that Jones Day now has even more of its lawyers as federal judges to the fact that Jones Day is bringing more and more cases before the Supreme Court. And it’s a Supreme Court where two of the justices were literally handpicked by [Jones Day attorney and former White House counsel] Don McGahn and a third, Amy Coney Barrett, is someone who McGahn picked out of academic obscurity for the spot on the appeals court with more or less of an expressed understanding that she would be a leading contender to one day be on the Supreme Court.
And now you have Jones Day arguing cases before a court that’s been decisively changed. Is that improper? I don’t think it’s improper, but I think it’s really interesting and very unusual.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.