Many people helped usher Donald Trump into the presidency and then tried to keep him there after he lost the 2020 election. In “Servants of the Damned: The Dark Side of American Law,” New York Times business investigations editor David Enrich tells the story of the firm Jones Day, Trump’s legal help, as well as the evolution of the legal industry over the past century. I found both enlightening.
Historically, law firms have had a somewhat haughty view of themselves and resisted becoming “commercialized.” Lawyers did well financially, but lawyering wasn’t considered a path to fabulous wealth. Firms tended to stay local and were prohibited from advertising. Founded in 1893, Jones Day was a smaller law firm in Cleveland, Ohio, and was content to stay that way, only expanding in the 1940s to open one office in Washington, DC. The firm was known to turn down clients it deemed disreputable.
The 1970s brought on multiple changes to the legal industry. In pursuit of revenue, firms sought growth. The prohibition on legal advertising was overturned, and American Lawyer, the first trade magazine for lawyers, was published, inspiring significant changes in the norms and values of the legal profession. “The size of the legal industry exploded,” Enrich writes, and the focus of firms turned to making money.
As with other firms, Jones Day embraced these changes. It started pressing its lawyers to book more billable hours. The firm decided to shed its Midwest label and began looking to expand through the acquisition of other law firms in New York City, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Frankfurt and more. Jones Day soon became one of the largest law firms in the world. Internally, Jones Day embraced authoritarian leadership, with the top man (always a man) dictating policy and strategy. “Do what you were told, whether you like it or not” became Jones Day’s philosophy. Focus on revenue eroded ethics. From the 1980s onward, Jones Day’s behavior became more extreme. According to Enrich, Jones Day’s “conduct was not pushing the envelope. It was burning up the envelope completely.”
Enrich writes that Jones Day was hardly alone with its egregious tactics. “The legal industry routinely traffics in borderline behavior designed to maximize profits and shield itself from unwanted scrutiny.” Elite lawyers and law firms are “geared toward helping clients sidestep regulations, control the media, whitewash their reputations, dodge taxes and hide their money — tasks that don’t fit under even the most expansive definition of work to which clients are constitutionally or ethically entitled.” As a result, “the legal industry mints money,” and individual lawyers have become filthy rich. There is a vast power imbalance “heavily in favor of the world’s richest companies and individuals at the expense of everyone else.”
In the political sphere, Jones Day always leaned conservative. The firm supported Ronald Reagan, and a few Jones Day lawyers even worked for his administration. But for a long time Jones Day avoided direct political work. This trend ended in the 1980s when Jones Day saw significant revenue in lobbying. The firm hired ex-political officials and marketed itself by boasting about the connections of its lawyers. As Jones Day pushed further into politics, a study as recent as 2016 in the Journal of Legal Analysis found that “Jones Day was the most ideologically conservative” of America’s leading law firms.
Examples of Jones Day clients represent a litany of right-wing causes: Not only the NRA, Smith & Wesson and the Koch brothers, but Jones Day defended Purdue Pharma in its Oxycontin suits, Walmart for lack of control or oversight of selling opioids, Fox News in sexual harassment cases, Johnson and Johnson for causing cancer and the Catholic church when it was trying to avoid paying for health care that provided contraception, as well as for defense in child abuse cases.
Jones Day became the expert in creating shell companies to help clients avoid taxes. In the 1980s, Jones Day helped its clients, which included over 200 savings and loans institutions, lie, cheat and misguide federal regulators. Ultimately, all this work resulted in Jones Day being fined $51 million.
Jones Day’s “greatest client” was the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, bringing the firm millions of dollars per month in revenue. Jones Day produced a manual for its defense of Big Tobacco, “which consisted in large part of blaming smokers for their own misfortune,” degrading science and many other deplorable tactics. Enrich writes that Jones Day was very proud of this work.
In 2016, Jones Day took an even harder turn to the right when the firm took on Trump’s presidential campaign as a client and, after his election, became embedded within the administration. The mastermind of Jones Day’s “Trump strategy” was Don McGahn, who became Trump’s White House counsel. Enrich writes that McGahn has a “visceral hatred of the ‘administrative state’” and saw Trump as an avenue to destroy it. McGahn’s key effort in the White House was to have Trump pack the courts with conservative judges, in which he was wildly successful.
Jones Day worked to seed Trump’s administration with its own staff, and dozens of the firm’s lawyers took positions in the White House, the Justice department and other federal agencies. When lawyers left Jones Day for the Trump administration, Jones Day gave them large “special payments,” sometimes in the millions. Jones Day lawyers then set to work to crush government regulations, weaken consumer protection laws and support McGahn’s goal of “neutering the federal bureaucracy and remaking the judiciary.” After the 2020 election, Jones Day’s efforts moved to helping with Trump’s “assault on the integrity of the American electoral system,” as the firm worked to help suppress votes.
After their work for Trump, Jones Day recruited those same lawyers back to the firm. Jones Day used “its web of federal connections to trawl for clients.” The “revolving door between the private and public sectors” was on steroids at Jones Day and involved a three-part strategy: first, sue the government on behalf of large corporations; second, work for government in departments tasked with regulating those same corporations; finally, go back to Jones Day with a pay raise. Enrich writes that Jones Day “wagered that representing Trump — and staffing his administration — would help transform Jones Day into a go-to firm for Republicans, mainstream and fringe alike.” The firm’s bet paid off and continues to do so.
“Servants of the Damned” reads like a novel. Enrich’s excellent writing makes reading an aggravating story less painful, but it’s still aggravating.
Dave Gamrath is a longtime community activist who founded InspireSeattle.org and serves on multiple regional boards and committees.
Read more of the Dec. 6–12, 2023 issue.