Lat’s Field Guide to N.Y. vs. D.C. Lawyers

Sometimes you need to leave a place for a while to figure out what makes it unique. After two and a half years down in Washington, I’ve just returned to New York, which I consider home. My time away has caused me to notice things I never paid much attention to before. Like the trash. And the smells. (Alert: New York is full of really bad smells! Who knew?)

Coming home has also caused me to think more about the legal cultures of the two cities. What makes someone a New York lawyer rather than a D.C. lawyer? What are the defining characteristics of each?

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“Washington is a company town, a little place, a little village, with one major industry: the United States government,” said Bernard Nussbaum, a longtime partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York, who served as White House counsel in the Clinton administration. “New York is a multifaceted community, with overlapping circles of finance, law, business, the arts, fashion—a much broader world.”

But not too broad. “New York legal work is motivated by the fact that we’re in the financial capital of the world,” explained Jeh Johnson, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York, and general counsel to the Air Force under President Clinton.

An associate at a large Gotham firm who previously practiced in D.C. summed up New York’s legal world even more concisely: “Money, money, money. Emphasis on business and making things happen. Shoes tell who’s who.”

What counts in D.C. is harder to describe. The Washington legal world is driven by elaborate hierarchies of power and prestige that can be inscrutable to outsiders, according to the New York associate. “The guy in the room in the worst suit is probably the highest-ranking government officer, the guy everyone wants to talk to.”

Or take down.

“Even though New York has this reputation for being hard-nosed and competitive, you want to live to fight another day,” said Mr. Nussbaum. “You win this case, they win that case; you win this deal point, they win that deal point. You don’t want to destroy the other party.”

D.C. is different. “When they go after you, they want to kill you,” said Mr. Nussbaum. “They want to drain your blood. They want a special prosecutor appointed; they want to send you to jail. I warned [President Clinton] not to appoint a special prosecutor [to deal with Whitewater]. Unfortunately, he didn’t listen—and he regrets it.”

Others don’t mind the capital’s eat-or-be-eaten ethos, since at least lawyers are higher on the food chain.

“Finance guys [in New York] openly mock and ridicule lawyers as peons who make peanuts,” said one Washington lawyer who used to work in New York. This lawyer told the story of a friend, a corporate lawyer at a prominent firm, who realized when he was a six-figure-earning bottom-dweller.

“He went out to a gentlemen’s club. One of the ladies asked him what he did for a living. His initial reaction was to lie and say, ‘I’m a banker.’ And he realized that if he couldn’t tell the truth about his job to an Eastern European stripper, he had to leave his job. He now works in finance.”

dlat@observer.com