After nearly three years as general counsel for the National Security Agency, Rajesh “Raj” De is returning to Mayer Brown to lead the firm's global privacy and security practice.
De, who first made partner at Mayer Brown in October 2007, left the firm two years later to join the U.S. Department of Justice, where he rose to the No. 2 role in the regulator’s Office of Legal Policy. In 2010, the Obama administration shuffled De over to the White House, where he spent the next two years as staff secretary and deputy assistant before becoming the NSA’s in-house legal chief in May 2012, where he became embroiled in a burgeoning government surveillance debate stemming from a series of explosive leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“It was the most challenging time in the agency’s history,” says the mild-mannered De, who spoke with The Am Law Daily late Tuesday about his decision to return to Mayer Brown, a transition process he notes was several months in the making. “Everything was so secret, for so long, that there’s still a lot of misinformation about what we do.”
De readily admits that jokes about his purported power to peer into the most intimate secrets of others is usually one of the first things family, friends and colleagues pepper him about in conversation. The good-natured De, who began his legal career as a junior litigation associate at O’Melveny & Myers, says that humor is the best way to disarm those expressing even mild concern about the NSA’s mandate.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do in my time [at the NSA] is make people less afraid,” says De, whose last day at the NSA’s Fort Meade, Maryland-based headquarters was Friday. “I served as general counsel of a highly regulated entity.”
De is the rare lawyer whose next public service job after leaving the White House provided more excitement than his previous post. He declines to get into specifics about his time at the NSA, discuss controversial agency programs like PRISM and XKeyscore or networks like the Five Eyes alliance, but defends his former employer’s adherence to the rule of law and mission to protect the American people.
“Whether it’s stealing IP or disruption, the cybersecurity landscape is evolving more rapidly than ever,” says De, listing a series of distributed denial-of-service attacks in recent years affecting companies like JPMorgan Chase, Sony and Saudi Arabia’s Aramco. “Every C-suite executive in the country appreciates the challenges we’re facing in the cybersecurity realm.”
De will join Mayer Brown's office in Washington, D.C., in June after taking some time to reacquaint himself with his family (he mentions a potential trip to Disney World). He expects to represent clients in a variety of industries in “bet-the-company” type matters that can tap into his litigation, regulatory and government affairs skills. The former NSA legal chief will lead a multidisciplinary practice of 35 lawyers, one that he says Mayer Brown has committed to doubling in size within two years.
Paul Theiss, elected chairman of Mayer Brown in 2012, confirms that his firm is keen on developing its cybersecurity expertise to compete with a growing number of Am Law 100 firms seeking to ramp up their capabilities in order to cater to the needs of corporate clients. “Cybersecurity and privacy have become a top priority for our clients in the U.S. and elsewhere,” Theiss says.
De, who also spoke with The Washington Post about his new role, will reunite at Mayer Brown with veteran litigation partner Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate special prosecutor and chief counsel to the U.S. Senate’s Whitewater Committee. Ben-Veniste says he recommended De for his role as counsel to the 9/11 Commission, a position he held from 2003 to 2004 before joining Mayer Brown.
Asked why he chose to return Mayer Brown, De notes his friendship with Ben-Veniste, as well as other partners like appellate litigator Andrew Pincus and outsourcing and technology transactions expert Rebecca Eisner. He says he relied on those personal relationships, not a legal recruiter, in making the move back to Mayer Brown, which last year saw gross revenue and partner profits rise.
At the NSA, De oversaw a 100-lawyer legal department that will now be led on a temporary basis by Teisha Anthony while the U.S. Department of Defense looks for his full-time replacement. (De isn’t the only notable national security personality to recently leave public service—David Buckley, a former inspector general at the Central Intelligence Agency who resigned as the organization’s watchdog in late January, joined KPMG this week as head of the global accounting giant’s federal forensic practice.)
As for Snowden, recently the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary by Laura Poitras, who as noted by The Am Law Daily received legal counsel from Davis Wright Tremaine partner Victor Kovner, De says he has no view on whether the former NSA contractor “is a hero or traitor” for disclosing details about top secret federal government surveillance programs in 2013.
“I do think that what he did was thoughtless, unscrupulous and criminal—no one is above our democratic system,” says De, adding that he has yet to watch the Poitras-directed “Citizenfour,” not due to any personal boycott but simply because he hasn’t had the time. He admits to being curious about the documentary, and asks a reporter for his opinion of the film by Poitras detailing her and former Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz associate-turned-investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald’s initial contact with Snowden.
Mayer Brown has had its own brush with Snowden. Last year, Poitras and James Risen—another reporter who has run afoul of the national security establishment—wrote a story in The New York Times based on details provided by Snowden alleging that Australia’s intelligence agency intercepted communications between Mayer Brown and the Indonesian government in a dispute over clove cigarettes. De chooses his words carefully when asked about the matter.
“Generally speaking, the NSA has a variety of rules in place to protect attorney-client privilege,” De says. He declined to comment further, as did Theiss.
Reprinted with permission from the March 17, 2015 edition of The American Lawyer © 2015 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
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