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Paul Clement's ability to land on his feet has amazed even his critics. He left his white-shoe law firm after it withdrew as counsel to the House of Representatives in defending the 15-year-old Defense of Marriage Act, a client Clement brought to the firm. Clement found a new job so fast that when a small band of supporters of same-sex marriage showed up outside his new office in late April to hand out printed flyers, they'd only had time to cross out the name of his old firm, King & Spalding, and write in the new one, Bancroft.
Clement walked out on King & Spalding after his representation drew complaints from longtime clients, according to people with knowledge of the matter. His new colleagues at Bancroft were more amused than concerned about their newfound notoriety. Referring to the protesters who showed up at the firm's door, Bancroft partner H. Christopher Bartolomucci says: "We took their piece of paper and thanked them, and that was the end of the meeting."
Clement's arrival has put tiny Bancroft on the map as a go-to firm in Washington for high-stakes appellate work, whether for conservative causes percolating through the federal courts or complex business cases like the one Clement argued on June 3 before a federal appeals panel in St. Louis on behalf of the National Football League owners in its labor dispute. "I would expect they would have the kind of success that boutiques composed of tremendously talented guys tend to have," says Bradford Berenson, a partner at Sidley Austin in Washington. Adds Berenson: "The difficulty is not going to be attracting business, it's going to be having adequate resources" to handle big cases.
Clement, Bartolomucci, and Bancroft founder Viet Dinh became close friends in the early 1990s while working on the Harvard Law Review. (Barack Obama was president of the law review during Clement and Bartolomucci's first year at the publication.) The three bonded over long hours checking legal citations, wonky arguments over the Commerce Clause, and late-night dinners of Vietnamese food. "Those are guys who would be successful whatever they would do," says Harvard Law professor Charles Fried, who hired Dinh and Bartolomucci as research assistants when they were students.
Since graduating, each has worked in all three branches of government on matters ranging from judicial nominations to the investigation of President Bill Clinton's Whitewater land deal to counterterrorism policy in the wake of Sept. 11. Clement, 44, was Solicitor General for George W. Bush and has argued 53 cases before the high court, making him one of a handful of appellate specialists in Washington with that much experience. Dinh, 43, who headed the Justice Dept.'s Office of Legal Policy under Bush, is also a full-time professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a board member at News Corp. (NWS). Bartolomucci, 44, was a protégé of Chief Justice John Roberts while in private practice. He went on to serve as associate White House counsel under Bush, vetting U.S. attorneys and handling pardon requests.
While Bartolomucci and Clement argue cases in the federal appellate courts, Dinh's practice consists mainly of advising corporate boards and executives with tough problems on their hands. He got Justice to drop charges against the securities class action firm Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman in 2008 in exchange for a $75 million fine. The non-prosecution agreement allowed the firm, now known as Milberg, to keep its doors open after a wide-ranging kickback scandal that sent several of its top partners to prison. Dinh also helped negotiate a 2008 plea deal for Stanley S. Tollman, founder of The Travel Corporation, who was fighting U.S. tax fraud charges. More recently, Dinh advised the former chairwoman of the audit committee of WellCare Health Plans (WCG), who resigned last year after questioning whether the insurer had proper oversight of its accounting. The company disputed her allegations.
Eschewing the tradition of putting his own name on the door, Dinh decided to call his firm Bancroft after a street in Washington's high-rent Kalorama neighborhood, where he once lived. Dinh, Bartolomucci & Clement is "not Anglo enough," jokes Dinh, who was born in Saigon during the Tet Offensive and fled Vietnam in 1978.
Clement hasn't had time to unpack his boxes since landing at Bancroft on Apr. 25. Besides the NFL case, he's handled an appeal on behalf of SC Johnson in a retirement benefits case. He also argued in an Atlanta federal appeals court on behalf of 26 states seeking to overturn Obama's health-care law and was just hired by Arizona to petition the Supreme Court to overturn an injunction blocking parts of the state's controversial 2010 immigration law.
His decision to work on the Defense of Marriage Act case has earned Clement respect in the legal community. At a press conference in April, Attorney General Eric Holder, whom Obama had instructed to stop defending the constitutionality of the 1996 statute, said criticism of Clement was "very misplaced." Clement remains philosophical about the dustup: "It just goes to show: If you really practice law, you can tick off everybody."
The bottom line: Three Harvard Law alums with years of government legal work under their belts have reunited at a powerful conservative D.C. law firm.