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Eric Holder's Transition From Gov't to Private Practice

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 08, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The door between public service and private industry is a revolving one. Examples abound of regulators who join the industries they once supervised and ex-politicians who made millions as corporate lobbyists. Lawyers are no special case. Plenty of attorneys leave practice for public service, only to return after a few years.

Eric Holder is the latest through the revolving door. After six years as Attorney General, Holder announced recently that he will be returning to his old firm, Covington and Burling. What can lawyers learn from this transition -- and should they seek to emulate it?

The Traditional Post-Service Route

Holder isn't at all unique in moving from the federal government back into the private sector. Jeb Bush made millions between his stint as Florida governor and presidential candidate, largely through expensive speaking engagements with corporate clients. Hillary and Bill, too, have raised millions through the Clinton Foundation and corporate engagements. If Holder stands out, it's perhaps because he will be returning to actual practice, rather than just becoming a very expensive party guest.

Indeed, Holder seems to have rejected even more prestigious, though technically not offered, post-AG employment. Holder has no interest in joining the Supreme Court, he recently told the National Law Journal. Should a future Madame President ask him to join the highest bench, he would decline. Judges are referees, Holder says, and he'd rather play ball.

Ethical Complications

For lawyers at least, playing ball isn't always as easy on the way out. Former government lawyers must deal with potentially difficult conflicts of interest after they go back to private practice. The ABA's Model Rules of Professional Conduct have a whole special conflict of interest rule for former government officers and employees. Aside from legal conflicts, there can also be public image difficulties when leaving the government for the private realm. Some who criticized Holder of being too on Wall Street now denounce him for returning to a major corporate firm.

Of course, that doesn't make Holder, or other former government lawyers, less attractive to future employers and clients. Even low-level government employees can leave their service with connections and an insider's view that can set them apart from the rest.

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