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Ted Olson, Gibson Dunn and Saudi Arabia

Vivia Chen

October 19, 2018

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Editor’s Note: After this column was published Thursday evening, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher said it had ended its contract to lobby on behalf of Saudi Arabia. 

Talk about awkward timing.

Just a month or two ago, Ted Olson was probably giddy that he landed Saudi Arabia as a lobbying client. And his firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher was probably pleased as punch that it bagged one of the richest—if not the richest—client in the world. Though the fees under the agreement weren’t obscene (Saudi Arabia agreed to pay Gibson Dunn a flat fee of $250,000 to prepare a white paper opposing legislation that exposed OPEC to U.S. prosecution for antitrust violations, plus an additional $100,000 per month for related work), the upside for other lucrative work must have made the partners swoon.

But, oh, what a long time ago that was!

Two weeks ago Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to complete paperwork for his upcoming marriage and vanished. Now presumed dead, he was most likely murdered at the hands of the Saudi government.

So instead of a coveted client, Olson and his firm are associated with a murderous nation that kills with impunity.

Clearly, Olson and Gibson Dunn are not the only players in this game. Lots of lawyers and firms work for unsavory nations like Saudi Arabia—King & SpaldingHogan LovellsNorton Rose Fulbrightand White & Case, to name just a few.

But here’s the thing: Olson is not just another partner, and, arguably, Gibson Dunn is not another fat firm.

Olson stands out because of his stature in the legal and political arena. Although he’s a Republican stalwart who’s fought in some of the most partisan fights of our time (in case you forgot, he represented President George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore), he’s developed a brand that’s become shinier with age, one that lifts him above the political fray. Indeed, he’s one conservative that liberals like—no doubt because he picks his causes carefully, like championing gay marriage with his pal David Boies before the U.S. Supreme Court.

And Gibson Dunn? Well, it’s a solid corporate citizen (yes, it’s a perennial on the Am Law A-List) and ludicrously profitable (profit per partner of well-over $3 million—not that that’s a measure of virtue). Moreover, some of its partners, particularly Ted Boutrous, have made big moral statements about the type of clients the firm will take on. Since President Donald Trump’s election, Boutrous has been adamant that it would be anathema for the firm to act as the president’s counsel. (Boutrous was the one who tweeted that Olson would not be joining Trump’s legal team.)

So here’s my burning question: What do Olson and Gibson Dunn have to gain from continuing their representation of Saudi Arabia?

Cynics will say it’s all about money. “The only upside to repping bad actors is the inordinate amount of money bad clients pay,” says a former partner at a Washington, D.C., firm.

But, as I’ve said, Gibson Dunn partners are already making plenty of dough. At some point, there’s more at stake than money.

“I don’t know if Ted Olson or Gibson Dunn will suffer reputational harm and/or lose some clients,” says William Henderson, professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. However, Henderson warns, “I am very worried about the toppling of norms that are crucial to the legitimacy of lawyers,” such as ignoring the type of assassination allegedly committed by Saudi Arabia. “If we permit the normalization of this type of conduct by political actors, then the rule of law is over. It’s a free-for-all based on political and financial advantage, regressing back to the time of Hobbes and Machiavelli.”

That’s a long way of saying: Do the right thing.

Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com

On Twitter: @lawcareerist

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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