Few Am Law 100 firm leaders have had starring roles in high-impact political litigation while managing their firms. John Devaney, who became Perkins Coie’s new managing partner on Jan. 1, falls into that category. In March, Washington, D.C.-based Devaney argued a case at the Florida Supreme Court that will determine whether the state must scrap a redistricting map drawn up by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature, a map that Devaney’s clients—Democratic voters—say amounted to partisan gerrymandering.
It’s just one of several such redistricting challenges he’s worked on since 2011 on behalf of Democratic voters in Republican-controlled states. Devaney, 57, spoke with The Am Law Daily about all the litigation and his recent appointment to the top post at the 1,002-lawyer Perkins Coie, where Democratic politics have long run in the DNA of the firm’s D.C. office. Last week, Perkins Coie, which already represents the Democrats’ Senate and House campaign committees, confirmed that it will serve as lead outside counsel to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Below is an edited transcript of the interview:
The Am Law Daily: You came to Perkins Coie in 1988 after four years as a trial lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, then spent the next 22 years doing a full range of commercial and communications litigation. Most recently, you’ve spent much of your time on Voting Rights Act redistricting challenges, mostly on behalf of by minority voters. Do you feel like you’ve come full circle?
John Devaney: I do. I was involved in some memorable Justice Department civil rights lawsuits back then against a dozen suburban towns outside Chicago and about 14 outside Detroit. Each had a requirement that you had to live there to serve in a municipal job, and we alleged that since there were almost no black residents, the requirement had an adverse affect on their employment by the municipalities. It was a novel theory at the time. We got a federal district court judge to endorse our position that the requirement was unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. That led to me negotiating well over a dozen consent decrees.
ALD: How did you get involved in the voter redistricting cases?
JD: In 2011, Marc [Elias, head of Perkins Coie’s 23-lawyer political law group and Democratic legal troubleshooter] was hired to assist the Democratic Party in disputes related to redistricting. I was in his office one day, just talking about the disputes on the horizon, and he asked me to take on a courtroom role as someone with a civil rights and a litigation background, and I very willingly signed on. The Texas redistricting fight began soon afterward. Texas had earned four more seats after the 2010 Census. The seats were almost exclusively due to an increase in the Latino population. But in the new maps drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature, three of the four new seats were located in white districts, a big red flag. Back then, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act applied, which required Texas and eight other states to get preclearance for any changes to their election laws. They went to a three-judge panel of the D.C. District to get the maps precleared.
Working in conjunction with the Voting Rights section of the Department of Justice and various public interest groups, my team took depositions of people who had drawn up the map who said that race wasn’t a factor in creating the voting districts. Then I and some other lawyers conducted a two-week trial before the panel in January 2012. Ultimately the panel found that the Texas legislature had engaged in racial discrimination in drawing the new map. But in June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated key parts of Section 5, and our victory was ultimately vacated. The underlying finding of racial discrimination wasn’t refuted, however, and there are ongoing related proceedings under Section 2 and the Equal Protection Clause—but we’re not involved in those.
ALD: There have been several other court challenges since the Supreme Court decision in 2013 focusing on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause, and you’ve been involved in many of them. Can you tell me about those?
JD: At the same time we were litigating in Texas, we initiated challenges to Florida’s redistricting map in February 2012. Because I had just come off the Texas case, it made sense for me to jump in and help out. That took a very significant amount of my time from that spring till this past fall, culminating with a three-week bench trial before the Florida state court last May into June. The verdict July 10 was that that the Florida legislative map was unconstitutional in that it improperly favored the Republican Party and that the Florida legislature had engaged in a conspiracy with paid Republican operatives to draw maps favorable to their candidates. Last month, I argued at the state’s Supreme Court asking the court to throw out a redistricting map that was subsequently amended, but only in a very limited way. We’ve asked the court to throw out the entire state redistricting map. A decision on our appeal could come as soon as May.
Concurrently, we were also prosecuting a second case in Florida and cases in Virginia and North Carolina. I played a significant role early on in those. [The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ordered a review of a ruling upholding the redistricting in North Carolina; on March 30, the court also sent a ruling scrapping the Virginia legislature’s redistricting back for review, both in light of the court’s recent decision in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, which found that the Alabama state legislature had relied too heavily on race in its redistricting by packing black voters in a few districts.]
ALD: Didn’t all the litigation coincide with the firm’s leadership succession process?
JD: It did (laughs). In May, a week or two before trial in Florida, I had to miss a pretrial conference because I’d been asked by the firm’s managing partner selection committee to come up for an interview. I couldn’t tell the judge why I had to be absent, which was awkward, because it’s kind of a big deal to miss a pretrial conference. But anyway, I flew to Chicago for the interview and came back to Tallahassee right afterward. Then, during the trial, the firm had me undergo psychometric tests, which I did during one weekend break. After the results were in, they had a psychologist tell me about my characteristics as a leader.
ALD: What did you learn about yourself in that process?
JD: Two things that stood out: I am very goal-oriented. I’m focused and driven in that way. Second, I have a low level of skepticism, quite a bit below the mean for lawyers. That means I had a higher level of trust in people generally.
ALD: How has your involvement in the cases changed since you were chosen last July as [former Perkins Coie managing partner Bob] Giles’ successor? And what has been your chief focus during your first 100 days?
JD: Naturally, I have had to become less engaged in the voting litigation, and my colleague Kevin Hamilton, an expert in recounts [who represented Sen. Al Franken in his recount, among others] has stepped up his involvement. We also just hired Bruce Spiva, a former Jenner & Block partner and an expert in voting rights litigation.
Last fall, to prepare for the managing partner role, I visited most of our 19 offices so I would have the knowledge necessary to lead the firm when I took over Jan. 1. During those meetings, we had a dialogue about what shape future growth at the firm should take. We have grown a lot in the last five or six years—by about 350 to 400 lawyers. I wanted to get feedback on whether the partnership wanted to pull back and emphasize certain core practice areas or continue that growth. We concluded that, one, growth has been very good for the firm; two, that we should continue to grow, and three, there are certain areas we should concentrate on. We’re currently in discussion on trends and legal practices that will be supporting growth. We haven’t announced which practices we’re growing yet.
Since January, I have been focusing mostly on the outward-facing roles, meeting clients and understanding their needs, trying to get a sense of what’s on their minds. I’ve also gone to each of our practice group retreats to talk over strategic plans and get feedback from each group.