Defending Peter Nickles

This won’t matter to most of you, but a former colleague of mine from Covington and Burling got attacked on the front page of the Washington Post today and I feel an urge to respond.

More below . . . .

Today (12/24/07) Washington Post includes a front page article called Fenty Friend and Counsel Walks Hard, Steps On Toes. It concerns the the general counsel for DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, former Covington & Burling Senior Partner Peter Nickles. The thrust of the article is that Nickles is a tough-guy corporate litigator used to getting what he wants and therefore exceeding his authority.

Such stories are not new to Adrian Fenty. Fenty is a relatively young man (under 40), a self-made millionaire who ran on a platform that the government of Washington DC had become filled with entrenched bureaucratic special interests and needed shakig up. Not “smaller government,” although Fenty promised that a more efficient government would run at a lower cost. Rather, Fenty said what most folks in the region have thought for years — that if the District is thrwoing so much money at problems like public schooling and getting so little by way of results, it is time to shake things up and find out where all the money is going.

Fenty’s candidacy was opposed by the political elite and the business community — which may seem odd for a self-made millionaire until you consider who benefits from a dependably corrupt city government. After winning quite handily (the DC voters are apparently less enamored of the status quo), Fenty went about making several controversial appointments and assuming direct control over the school system. In addition to the predictable harvest of criticism and tsking from those like the Post that opposed his candidacy, Fenty has also uncovered a large number of very messy embezzlement and corruption schemes that his “controversial” hires who “caused problems” and “did not respect veterans or work well with others” discovered.

So perhaps it is no surprise that the Post has now turned its sites on Nickles. Nickles is an oddball in the Fenty Administration. Nickles is neither a young heretic from out of town like Education Secretary Michelle Rhee or a “mustang” rising from within like Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier. To the contrary, as the article describes, Nickles is a 59 year old white guy from a major downtown law firm who specialized in corporate litigation. The only litigation victory mentioned by name is Nickles persuading a U.S. court to dismiss a case brought against a Peruvian company for “allegedly contaminating children” (as well as other folks in the area, I assume — it is toxic tort), although defending environmental polluters is also mentioned. While the article can apparently find few to explain why Nickles “has a personal commitment to make the [DC] agencies do a better job,” it can find plenty of people to talk about how Nickles “toughness” and “drive” and how he “loves to win,” with the implication that this is somehow interfering with being a good lawyer and administrator for the district. The article also mentions Nickles close relationship with Fenty’s parents, suggesting that Fenty hired Nickles for personal reasons.

For some reason, the article never mentions what I think is the key reason Fenty chose Peter Nickles for the job. For the last 20 or so years, Nickles has represented DC’s most helpless and indigent clients in class action suits against the District of Columbia. Nickles (and the other partners and associates who worked on these cases at Covington) handled these representations pro-bono. Settlements were generally not financial settlements or settlements with attorneys’ fees, but were settlements under which the District of Columbia undertook to invest money to make the lives of those represented better, and to fulfill the City’s legal obligations to these classes of people. These classes included prisoners, the mentally ill, juvenile defendants, and others who faced an indifferent DC bureaucracy quite content to ignore its responsibilities to those in its care. Or, as the local radio news station put it:

Peter J. Nickles’ pro bono cases have spanned decades and have sought to bring about changes at D.C.’s Oak Hill facility for children, the District’s Lorton Prison Central Facility and its mental health system. In Dixon v. Barry, Nickles persuaded the court to put the city’s mental health system under receivership.

You can find more details on Nickles pro bono efforts here.

Inclusion of this detail in the article seems somewhat more relevant, I would think, than Nickles personal focus on physical fitness or on his corporate litigation success in defending industrial polluters in. For one thing, it explains why Fenty would put someone like this in charge of reforming DC’s agencies and making sure they actually deliver services to the poor and indigent — rather than just stealing from them and treating them like garbage. It also explains why some of the folks Nickles has spent years pushing from the outside to obey their legal obligations to service the poor might be annoyed that Nickles is now their boss — and why they might find him “prickly” and “demanding.”

Full disclosure — I worked at Covington for 2 years. I did a little work on toxic tort with Peter Nickles before I settled into the Communications and Energy groups. I can certainly attest to Nickles drive to win and willingness to demand that associates meet his level of dedication and excellence. But Nickles was as quick to say when he thought an associate did a nice job as when an associate screwed up, and understood that there was more to life than law.

Perhaps most importantly, Nickles was one of the most passionate partners at Covington about the duty of all attorneys to carry a pro bono load as well as a paying client load. Nickles wasn’t alone in this (when I was at Covington, it still didn’t have a formal billable hours quota and it considered pro bono hours as equal to paying hours for informal purposes), but he was certainly one of the most vocal champions of it at Covington and in the DC Bar. Nickles pushed hard that a pro bono client deserves the same level of zealous advocacy as a paying client. Whether it was a class action to reform the DC prison system, or just one tenant fighting eviction, Nickles wanted to see every lawyer being just as intent about winning as when representing mining companies and manufacturers at $500/hr.

Nickles certainly didn’t have to take a leave from his high-paying corporate law job in DC to become Fenty’s interim General Counsel. It’s hard to imagine such a post conferring any greater stature or political prestige than Nickles already enjoyed, and it must be a pay cut of epic proportions. For the Post to suggest this is some kind of personal ego trip for a bullheaded litigator, without mentioning Nickles years spent pushing for reform from the outside, is hardly journalism. It is simply a hatchet job.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. I thought the article was interesting and not quite so hatchetty as you did — although I certainly agree that the omission of the past pro-bono in suing the city on behalf of the people it’s supposed to serve is deeply suspect. Why did they leave that out? It seems like a key piece of the story.

    I did not get any implication that Nickles got the job for personal reasons. Really, as you say, why would he want it? The pay is less, the abuse is greater, and it’s not exactly a stepping-stone to higher political office. So I think the family connection is interesting, but not tainted.

    Not being from the D.C. area, I am not attuned to District politics, but certainly the city government has a well-earned national reputation as a dysfunctional mess, and if this new team is really about competence and honesty, why then it’s easy to understand how they’re upsetting people. The impression I get from combining your and the Post’s articles is that the mayor and his counsel are some kind of “untouchable” team. If so, good for them.

    I am aware of the Washington Post for its coverage of national events & for its (demented) editorial page.

    I must say that in general I’m not impressed. I don’t think it’s a partisan rag or a Weekly World News, but it certainly is no paragon of fourth estate integrity. It’s more like the house organ of the Washington establishment, with a little actual journalism thrown in here and there once in a while just to keep up appearances.

  2. I agree — who would want that job? They are lucky to have him. Nickles is exactly the kind of guy you would want if you were trying to reform a government that has one of the worst reputations in the country. As you point out, not only does he seem to really care about the city (based on his pro bono work) but he’s also not afraid to step on some toes.

  3. This is a good one.

  4. At 69, Nickles was on the cusp of retirement at Covington, so his lateral move to the D.C. government was not exactly an epic pay cut. I worked at Covington for many years, including with Nickles on several matters. He was easily the most unpleasant human being I had ever worked with, and was generally known and reputed as such at the firm. His manner was to berate, belittle, and bully everyone — from hapless junior associates to his most senior partners — and everyone knew it. His pro bono commitment aside, Nickles never once showed the slightest compassion for or interest in the people he actually worked with. What odd priorities.

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