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Lanny Davis, Partner, ''Legal Crisis Communications'' practice group, Orrick, Washington, DC
by Regan Morris
Davis, who remains in the headlines almost daily—most recently while defending Clinton against allegations made in a book by former FBI director Louis Freeh—said his practice focuses on "legal crisis communications," which entails helping companies and individuals with strategic communications. He also practices civil litigation, with an emphasis on securities fraud, accounting irregularities cases, antitrust, government contracts, and commercial litigation.
"I created a new discipline in law practice," Davis said. "When I left the White House in February of 1998, I realized that there was a need for a lawyer who knew how to talk to journalists and who knew how to get facts into stories, even in the middle of high-profile cases, as opposed to the usual instinct by most lawyers, which is to say, 'No comment.'"
Davis wrote the book Truth To Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself: Notes from My White House Education and dismisses charges that Clinton's White House was not the most honest.
"The only allegations that ever had any validity in terms of being accurate related to Monica Lewinsky," said Davis, who resigned shortly before the Lewinsky scandal hit the papers, but frequently commented on the story. "And that was a private relationship issue that never should have made it into the public arena. An overzealous prosecutor and an over-partisan movement criminalized something that never should have been a public issue. If you look at every other allegation against President Clinton starting with Whitewater and go through every single headline about investigating the Clinton White House, you come up with zero."
Davis says it is better to comment on a breaking scandal that to stay silent, because too often headlines create a presumption of guilt, and companies and politicians are better served by telling the truth and admitting a mistake if one were made.
"Even if before there's any evidence in, you have prosecutors declaring CEOs as corrupt, and they haven't even started their first day in court," he said. "The headlines cause the stock to drop, sometimes the CEOs are forced to resign, sometimes their reputation is ruined forever, and they still haven't been to court. It's just pure accusation. And so what I do as a lawyer now is try to teach company executives and company boards that you have to fight back against the presumption-of-guilt culture, where accusation becomes a surrogate for truth."
One of President George W. Bush's fraternity brothers at Yale, Davis intended to become either a journalist or a Democratic politician. He attended law school also at Yale, because he thought it would open doors in journalism and politics. Davis, who remains friends with Bush, said he often jokes with the president that he only voted for him once—when Bush was elected president of their fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon.
"We were in the same fraternity, and we partied pretty seriously together," Davis said of President Bush, who appointed Davis to serve on the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by the U.S. Congress as part of the 2005 Intelligence Reform Act. "He [Bush] invited me to ride home with him on Air Force One when he got an honorary degree from Yale. And I had my ride on Air Force One, which I never had when Bill Clinton was president."
Although Davis was appointed to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in June, the board has yet to start work. The board was a result of recommendations from the 9-11 Commission.
Davis, who was chairman of the Yale Daily News, was also a classmate of Senator Joe Lieberman and worked on several of his early political campaigns. After graduating from law school and winning the prestigious Thurmon Arnold Moot Court prize, Davis moved to Washington to work as a speechwriter for the Edmund Muskie presidential campaign. Davis also unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Maryland in the early 1970s before joining the law firm Patton Boggs in 1975 and making partner in 1978.
Although his run for office was unsuccessful, Davis said the experience was invaluable and has helped him throughout his career supporting the Democratic Party. He served three terms (1980-1992) on the Democratic National Committee representing the State of Maryland.
Davis joined Orrick in October 2003, bringing along his Legal Crisis Communications colleagues.
When hiring for the practice group, Davis said he prefers "three legs of the stool," meaning a law degree and experience in both journalism and politics.
"We fundamentally created this new discipline based on lawyers who have attorney-client privilege. That's the key difference between us and a public relations firm or the difference between us and lawyers who are doing public relations, but they're not practicing lawyers," he said.
The attorney-client privilege allows Davis and his colleagues to provide media outlets with all the facts in a case. A PR firm can't be as effective, Davis said, because it is generally not given all the facts of a case.
Although Davis' clients are now mainly corporations and CEOs, not politicians, he said he hoped Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton would run for president and that he would help in her campaign if possible.
Meanwhile, Davis has been busy defending Clinton against Freeh's charge that he failed to ask Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to cooperate with the FBI and instead hit the prince up for a donation to Clinton's presidential library. Davis and others who were present in the meeting with the crown prince say that is a lie.
As for scandals at the Bush White House, Davis said he hoped for the sake of journalism that Bush advisor Karl Rove would not be indicted.
"But I have been saying if Karl Rove is indicted, he's going to need somebody like me to help him," Davis said. "I feel sympathetic to Mr. Rove because I think if he's indicted for talking to a reporter about what he knew about this story, it's going to further chill, I think, the job people have to do in the White House, which is to talk to reporters."
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