Jones Day is the fifth-largest law firm in the United States. It has over 2,500 attorneys spread over 43 offices both here and abroad. According to American Lawyer, it grosses over $2 billion in revenue per year, which results in $1.1 million in profit per partner, per year.
Most law firms aren’t name brands outside of the legal community, but Jones Day has become just that. It’s not because of its size. It’s because Jones Day has represented the Trump campaign or Trump’s Republican Party in around 20 lawsuits, including the president’s recent desperate attempt to disenfranchise enough voters in Pennsylvania to overturn the results of the election. The New York Times estimates that Jones Day has received $20 million in legal fees from the Trump campaign or organizations connected to Trump over the past few years. In exchange for this money, Jones Day lawyers have been willing to stand up in court and advance Trump’s often bigoted, occasionally dangerous, always bad legal claims.
Still, while $20 million might sound like a hefty sum, it’s not enough to buy the souls of an entire law firm. The Trump administration is not like Big Oil or the banking industry; it can’t sustain an entire large law firm practice. Twenty million dollars just doesn’t fully explain why Jones Day has risked its reputation to defend Trump and Trumpism—and, make no mistake, its reputation is getting shredded. Within the last week, the Lincoln Project and MeidasTouch have both launched ads against the firm, as well as its clients, over its role in Trump’s election lawsuits. Its lawyers are getting clowned on LinkedIn and even some of the firm’s own attorneys are publicly criticizing the firm. A normal “Biglaw” firm would have dropped such a high-controversy, low-payout client long before the general public started paying attention.
That’s precisely what Porter Wright, another law firm that had been representing Trump in his efforts to challenge the Pennsylvania results, just did; it asked permission to withdraw itself from the case. So did Snell & Wilmer, which had been representing the Republican National Committee in a case it had brought alongside the Trump campaign in Arizona. But Jones Day remains. Jones Day has not withdrawn. And that’s because Trump has been paying the firm in something money can’t buy: access to power.
Since 2016, Jones Day lawyers have been invited into Trump’s ruling government at every level. As many as 14 were tapped from the get-go—a number deemed so unusual that Ted Olson, a Republican super-lawyer most famous for representing George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore, said at the time, “I don’t know of a precedent.”
The most famous hire was Don McGahn, who spent almost two years as White House counsel and continues to ignore a congressional subpoena to testify about his knowledge of Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice. While McGahn has since returned to Jones Day, he was able to use his perch in the counsel’s office to help reshape the federal judiciary under Trump. In addition to overseeing district court and circuit court appointments, McGahn was heavily involved in the nominations of Supreme Court justices Neil Gorsuch and alleged attempted rapist Brett Kavanaugh. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh weren’t even on the “list” of potential nominees Trump produced ahead of the 2016 election. McGahn, as much as anybody, pushed those names to the forefront.
And McGahn is far from the only Jones Day partner to benefit from the firm’s liaison with Trump. Noel Francisco, the US solicitor general who argued the case for a bigoted Muslim ban before the Supreme Court, is a Jones Day partner who returned to the firm after his disservice to the nation. Eric Dreiband, whose legal work at Jones Day involved representing corporate clients fighting against discrimination charges from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has helmed the civil rights division at the Department of Justice since 2018. Dana Baiocco, a Jones Day lawyer who specialized in defending companies accused of selling deadly products, was picked to run the Consumer Product Safety Commission—because of course she was. When Republicans control the Executive Branch, they love to install people who think their agencies should be disbanded.
Before the Trump administration, the most prominent Jones Day alum was Antonin Scalia, who worked there back in the 1960s. I assume that’s where he was licked by the radioactive frog from the polluted Cuyahoga River that gave him the clairvoyance to know—precisely!—the founding fathers’ thoughts on all things. The most powerful living alum was probably Megyn Kelly, the former Fox TV host. She worked there for nine years, eventually rising to what she described as “an almost partner.” Now, its alumni include a slew of MAGA heroes as well as some of the most dangerous people Trump has placed on the federal bench. Jones Days lawyers like caging enthusiast Chad Readler (we profiled him last year) and Trump enabler Gregory Katsas now sit proudly on the circuit courts. Jones Day has turned representing Trump into a pipeline to access and power.
The prestige and power Trump has conferred upon Jones Day is something it hasn’t really been able to earn on its own. The firm got its start in Cleveland, Ohio, and is still headquartered there, not exactly a hot spot for elite law school graduates looking to join a “white shoe” law firm. Jones Day rose to national prominence as a defender of Big Tobacco, and cigarette pusher RJ Reynolds remains one of its bigger clients. The booth promoting “the tobacco lawyers from Cleveland” isn’t exactly the one that gets a lot of foot traffic at the law school career fair.
And then there are the warning flags about the firm’s culture. The firm has long had a reputation for having a “frat boy” culture—one woman described an “endemic culture of sexual inappropriateness”—and such word-of-mouth warnings have turned into explosive allegations in the #MeToo era.
In 2019, six named plaintiffs brought a class action lawsuit against the firm for gender discrimination. The plaintiffs allege that the firm’s “fraternity culture” leads to a hostile work environment and unequal pay for women and mothers and pregnant women. The suit survived a motion to dismiss just this past May and is ongoing. The firm is also involved in a scandal in which it allegedly doctored the photograph of one of its Black attorneys to make her look Caucasian.
Many corporate law firms represent unpopular clients or defend unsavory business practices. Many, I’m sure, are guilty of some form of hostility and pay discrimination toward women. All of that is gross and one of the reasons so many people leave corporate legal work, despite the high salaries. What makes Jones Day unique at this point is that the firm is being paid in governmental power for its legal work. Other firms distance themselves from the politics of their most notorious clients, claiming that they are just advancing meritorious legal arguments for money—which is what lawyers are trained to do. But by creating a revolving door between the firm and the administration, Jones Day cannot claim merely to be a set of lawyers advancing a case. They are using Trump’s transactional nature to further their own careers in politics and the judiciary.
I would not criticize a law firm for representing, say, a terrorist organization. In fact, representing the very worst people is one of the noblest things I believe a lawyer can do. But I would critique a law firm for representing a terrorist organization as a way to get one of its guys picked by the terrorists to lead a sleeper cell. There’s a line between defending an evil organization in court and helping it perform evil in the country. It might be a line that’s hard for nonlawyers to see and appreciate, but people with legal training can spot the difference between a criminal defense attorney and a “mob lawyer” from a mile away.
Jones Day is on the wrong side of the line, and people who pay attention to law firms know it.
Kathryn Rubino, editor of my old employer Above the Law, which closely tracks the way Biglaw firms operate, told me, “That Jones Day is staking its entire business on fealty to Donald Trump is the definition of a ‘dog bites man’ story in the legal world…. It’s unsurprising that they’ve taken a position in court challenging the legitimacy of the 2020 election.”