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The Life and Career of Donald B. Verrilli, Partner, Jenner & Block, Washington, DC
by Regan Morris
As chair of Jenner & Block's Telecommunications Practice and a Co-Chair of its Appellate and Supreme Court Practice, Verrilli defies labels. While many struggle to establish expertise in a particular area of law, Verrilli has succeeded in so many areas. But he's best known as an appellate attorney.
"I've always wanted to maintain a mix, not be exclusively an appellate practitioner," he said, adding that he also works as a trial attorney and handles regulatory matters. "I really do prefer to keep it as a mix and not focus exclusively on appellate law. Although, I must say, as the years go by, more of my focus seems to be appellate practice with each passing year, despite my best effort to maintain a balance."
Verrilli is a member of the firm's Litigation & Dispute Resolution Practice and the Policy Committee. He has argued numerous cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The son of an attorney, Verrilli said he knew early on that he wanted to study the law and was especially interested in the connection between the legal profession and public policy.
"Even though we're representing private clients in a firm and working to advance the interests of our clients, there's always the connection to the public sphere and to public policy in virtually everything we do, and I find that quite stimulating," he said.
Verrilli clerked for Associate Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., of the U.S. Supreme Court and Judge J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. When he joined the firm Ennis, Friedman & Bersoff, Verrilli found a powerful friend and mentor in Bruce Ennis. (Ennis, Friedman & Bersoff merged into Jenner & Block in 1988.)
"Bruce was an appellate and Supreme Court specialist, and I grew up working with him," Verrilli said. "Bruce Ennis, in addition to being known for his Supreme Court skills, was also a very well known First Amendment lawyer and attracted a significant amount of First Amendment work, and I was able to get involved in First Amendment work that way."
Verrilli has been teaching First Amendment law as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center for 13 years. Sadly, Mr. Ennis passed away from leukemia five years ago at age 60. Verrilli said Ennis helped him create the varied law practice he wanted.
While trial work and Supreme Court practice are quite different, Verrilli said the skill set needed to be successful in both areas is not so different: "In both, you have to be on your feet, you've got to be careful, be very sensitive to what's going on around you, and be the most successful advocate in the situation."
Verrilli declined to speculate on any upcoming changes on the Supreme Court, but said positive things about Supreme Court nominee John Roberts.
"I think Judge Roberts is a very distinguished practitioner and a role model for those of use who are aspiring appellate practitioners," he said. "I have argued before him twice on the DC Circuit and in both cases found him to be extraordinarily well prepared and asked very probing questions, but did so in a very civil and even-handed manner."
Verrilli served as Special Counsel to the President in 1994, assisting on the confirmation of Justice Stephen Breyer.
As the representative for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Verrilli successfully convinced the Supreme Court that software companies that build businesses for the illegal distribution of copyrighted material are liable for copyright infringement. He also successfully argued General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline, a case in which the Court ruled that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act does not authorize reverse-discrimination suits. In FCC v. Next Wave Personal Communications, the Supreme Court ordered the return to NextWave of billions of dollars' worth of wireless phone spectrum licenses that the FCC had sought to repossess while NextWave was in bankruptcy.
Verrilli has also been working with Verizon Communications and MCI in an effort to get their merger approved by the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission. When asked how he handles such a heavy caseload, Verrilli makes it sound easy.
"It's par for the course," he said. "Not too bad, I think."
He also spends about 10 percent of his time on pro bono cases, mainly for death row inmates.
"I have done over the years quite a number of death penalty cases because of a very strong belief that people facing execution should have the best possible representation and that very often—too often—they get shortchanged in the representation they get," he said. "I wanted to use some of my time and energy to ameliorate that. Obviously, I can ameliorate that only a little bit by representing individuals, but I have found that was always very important to me, an important source of fulfillment, but also an important source of skill development."
In 2004, Verrilli won the National Legal Aid & Defender Association's Arthur von Briesen Award for his pro bono work.
When talking with young associates at the firm or students in his Constitutional Law classes, Verrilli urges them to find an area of the law that they find fulfilling.
"Do what's going to make you happy. We work very, very hard in this profession, and it demands a lot; and if you're not getting fulfillment out of the work that you're doing, then you ought to seek another path," he said. "That ought to be your guiding principle."
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