Leaders in Law: Brendan McGuire

Leaders in Law: Brendan McGuire

Podcast In the Public Interest

Episode Guest

In this episode of In the Public Interest, host Felicia Ellsworth interviews Brendan McGuire, who recently rejoined WilmerHale after serving as chief counsel to New York City Mayor Eric Adams and City Hall. McGuire discusses his experience in the Adams Administration, including the challenges emerging from COVID, the New York City Legal Fellows Program and the asylum seeker crisis. He also reflects on his prior experience as chief of the Public Corruption Unit at the US Attorney’s Office for the SDNY and how it influenced his decision to join the Adams Administration. McGuire discusses his return to WilmerHale and how his experience in the mayor’s office will contribute to his private practice.

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    Felicia Ellsworth: Welcome to In the Public Interest from WilmerHale – an international law firm at the intersection of government, technology and business.  Thank you for joining us.  I’m Felicia Ellsworth, a partner in the firm’s Litigation and Controversy Department.

    Before we begin, I’d like to first note that John Walsh, my longtime co-host and former partner, has left the Firm (and the pod) to run for District Attorney of Denver.  We’re sorry to lose him, but we’re so excited for his next chapter and are grateful for his many contributions to the Firm and the Podcast.  But the show will go on!  And we have a great season in store, starting with this episode – which fittingly features another former co-host from the first season of In the Public Interest, Brendan McGuire.

    Brendan was a member of WilmerHale’s White Collar Defense and Investigations Practice from 2016 to 2021, when he left the firm to join New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ Administration as Chief Counsel to the Mayor and City Hall. Earlier in his career Brendan was Federal Prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Officer for the Southern District of New York, where he led the Public Corruption Unit and the Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit.

    Happily for WilmerHale, Brendan re-joined the firm in October 2023 as a partner in the firm’s New York office. His practice involves high-stakes litigation, crisis management, and advisory work with a particular emphasis on clients facing complex legal and policy challenges in New York.

    We invited Brendan on the podcast to discuss his experience as Chief Counsel and the new perspective he brings to his practice.

    Ellsworth: Brendan, welcome back to the podcast and of course, welcome back to WilmerHale. Let me know first, what does it feel like to be on the other side of the pod mic?

    Brendan McGuire: Well, it sort of feels a little bit like when they say it’s a lot easier to be the lawyer than the witness. I would say that feels true in the podcast context as well.

    Ellsworth: Well, we’re certainly excited to have you back at the firm and as our first guest on the podcast for this season. So, let me remind our listeners a little bit. Before rejoining WilmerHale, you were appointed by New York City Mayor Eric Adams to the newly created position of Chief Counsel to the Mayor and City Hall. So, tell me a little bit about what it meant to you to represent, not just the mayor, but also City Hall for the city of New York.

    McGuire: It was a real privilege to be able to serve in the city. It was an opportunity that I felt was worth leaving Wilmer for, as happy as I was, given the state that the city was in with a new administration coming in, the city was trying to come out of COVID and grapple with some other really challenging issues. And it proved to be challenging and then some, for sure. It was an incredibly intense experience with incredibly talented and dedicated people who go in every day and serve the city and I both am thrilled to have done it and I’m very, very happy to be back at Wilmer.

    Ellsworth: Well, I know that the people of the city of New York were happy to have your service for so long as they did. Let’s talk a little bit about earlier in your career because before you joined the Adams Administration and before that, WilmerHale, you were the Chief of the Public Corruption Unit at the US Attorney’s Office for the SDNY, where you prosecuted state and local officials accused of corruption. So, I wanted to ask how that prior experience influenced your decision both to join the Adams Administration, and also your work during that administration?

    McGuire: Government with integrity has always been an essential piece of our government and of people’s faith in government. So for me, being able to do public corruption work as a prosecutor, you have a certain vantage point into the way in which public officials operate every day, the challenges that they face, but you certainly have a skewed or limited view of what they do. And I think this experience certainly opened that aperture for me in understanding the different types of challenges and pressures that those in elected offices face as you were trying to get the job done but in an environment that really feels like a fishbowl with an incredibly demanding media environment, various stakeholders on every issue. One of the things about New York that is absolutely true is that no one is indifferent. As soon as I got the job, I was inundated with ways in which I was going to be personally held responsible for various problems in the city that needed to be fixed right away. And so there’s a lot of demands there and you realize that in order to really do that effectively, one of the real key pieces of that—which I was really trying to ensure—is a culture of good government, a culture of compliance, a culture where lawyers are really prominent inside the building and that people are feeling free to partner with the legal team as they do their job and come across situations day-to-day where lawyers I think, can help them navigate. One of the things that this administration had was a number of lawyers in a number of different roles, not just in traditionally legal roles, but also in more operational and policy roles, as the mayor is someone who really does trust lawyers and values that discipline. And so that made the job a lot more constructive in that there were a number of people in there who understood what me and my team were trying to do.

    Ellsworth: Building off of how you felt when you first started the job, shortly after you were appointed to the position of Chief Counsel, you wrote that our confidence in the ability of government to get things done, to nurture transformative forward-looking ideas, and to keep us safe has never been lower. So tell us a little bit about what you meant there. Why do you think it is that people’s faith in government and in institutions is so low right now?

    McGuire: I think part of it is a result of misconduct by those in government, and I think there’s a growing cynicism about that. And that is occurring at what may feel like a greater rate than it used to. I think it’s a very unforgiving media environment for elected officials. There’s, I think much more pressure on journalists today to produce content in a way that there wasn’t always. And I think that that can also contribute as well. The perception can be that institutions are being served by those who are putting their own personal interests above those of the public. And then I think there’s now just enormously hard problems that oftentimes government is ill-equipped to fix. One of the examples is there’s an asylum seeker crisis—essentially a refugee crisis—right in the heart of New York City as a result of the state of our border. That’s a problem that is global in nature, but it is affecting acutely our backyard and it’s a problem that no city has ever had to grapple with. And so that oftentimes makes people feel like, well government is helpless here, what are we actually electing these folks to do if they can’t fix these really hard problems? I think that the best way to respond to that—and that’s what I encourage, particularly young lawyers who feel that way—is to get in and to try to fix those problems yourselves and devote a chapter of your career to government service. There is nothing more satisfying, and the problems are at least as complex, if not sometimes more, given the different public considerations that you can have in government as those that you can experience in the private sector. So I think it’s a combination of factors, but it is a difficult time right now for all those in government, I think because of that attitude.

    Ellsworth: You talked a little bit earlier about the role of attorneys in the Adams Administration and that the Adams Administration did have such respect for the rule of law and the role of attorneys, and the mayor’s office started a fellowship program for young attorneys working at law firms, allowing them to come and spend a year working at city agencies. Tell us a little bit about the origin of this idea and how you think this experience helped both the city and the administration, but also those attorneys who were able to participate.

    McGuire: In younger generations of attorneys today, my experience has been that they’re constantly searching for ways in which they can make a real public impact with their talents and with their experience. And oftentimes there is, I think, a more narrow view than needs to be in terms of once you get out of school for a few years, what are the options, what are the opportunities for government service? And I think the city, as a general matter, has done a poor job promoting itself as a destination for young lawyers, both in legal positions as well as in policy positions and operational positions. So part of this was motivated by that, that sense that there was a real groundswell of young lawyers in the city who want to do public service but might not have known what working for the city was like. Secondly, there was an incredible amount of attrition within the city of lawyers, year after year, as a result, in part because of COVID and some other factors. The city was losing around 20% of its lawyers every year and unable to replenish the ranks. The result was that a number of the agencies that relied on counsel were oftentimes suffering as a result of that. So we decided to set up this Legal Fellows Program where we reached out to a lot of the large law firms in the city and asked them if they would be willing to make an investment in the city in the form of one or two of their lawyers for a year. Not surprisingly, a number of firms stepped in and said absolutely, and we assigned young associates from each of the firms to different city agencies. They were paid their law firm salaries, but showed up for work every day in the city and were exposed to the work of the city and of those individual agencies, reporting often to the general counsels of the agencies. The city got the benefit of really good young lawyers and these younger lawyers got to be exposed relatively earlier in their careers to the opportunities that may be available for lawyers in city service. And you know, the hope is that that can be scaled in time and that it serves as kind of an enduring bridge between the city and the legal community here in the city, such that this becomes a permanent program that will allow everyone involved to really benefit.

    Ellsworth: Yeah, sounds like an amazing program and it was a big success in its first year. So more to come on that, I’m sure. We do hear a lot about the challenges facing big cities like New York in today’s sort of post-pandemic world, but I want to flip the script a little bit and ask you if you could maybe talk about the successes that you’re most proud of during your time in the Adams Administration.

    McGuire: I think certainly one is the emergence from COVID. We started on January 1, all wearing masks. It was certainly not the height of the pandemic, but there was a lot of concern about the ability for businesses to reopen. What was going to be the state of the public school system? How are we going to kind of navigate the new normal post-COVID? And there was a number of really fascinating legal aspects to that in terms of executive orders that the mayor put out and various other decisions about how to do this in an equitable way that would also, though, allow business to really take off in the city as much as it has over the last two years, since the mayor took office. I think that’s certainly one. The Legal Fellows Program is another one which I think is hopefully, for the legal community, going to be one that lasts. And then I think a third one, as hard a problem as it is and certainly there’s a long way to go, the asylum seeker crisis was one that I really think had so many different competing interests and was very difficult, and at its core was a legal issue, which was whether the so-called “right to shelter,”—that had been established for New Yorkers based on an old consent decree—whether that properly applied to the asylum seekers who were coming here without any connection to New York, and all of the issues that arose and how to navigate through that. And that’s obviously still an ongoing challenge as the city’s now had north of 150,000 people come through its shelter system. But the ability to set up a framework for that to ensure that you weren’t having families sleeping on the street in ways that the city could continue to function at a high level while also welcoming these individuals who had such harrowing journeys to the city in a way that you did so with dignity and respect, ultimately trying to give them the foundation for a new life here in the United States. That was tough stuff. And there’s a long way to go there, but at least in this initial stage, we were able to stabilize it.

    Ellsworth: Important and difficult problems and reason for some optimism, but also a lot of work ahead, of course. Let’s shift a little bit to talk about your own career path and decision to pursue public service. I know you have a family history of service in the city of New York itself and just curious if you could talk a little bit about some of your decisions that have led you to have such a strong career that has had so many different stints in important public service roles.

    McGuire: I’ve always sort of felt that public service is actually quite a selfish act, because I feel like invariably you get more out of it than you put in. I’ve been very fortunate. The two principal experiences I’ve had in government have been very special and principally because of the people that I was able to work with and the relationships that you carry from those. Of course, one of the reasons I’m here at Wilmer is a number of the relationships that I was able to form in my first stint in government. I also think, though, that the ability to really feel like you are able to make a real impact with respect to really difficult issues is something that is uniquely satisfying when you’re doing it in the public sphere because of the different ways in which you can see that work benefit those who you’re serving. And so I have felt very fortunate about both of my stints in government, and at the end of the day it does come down to obviously the work to some degree, but really the quality of the people. And that is the reason why for me, it has always been a very fulfilling path and the reason why, as I say, I’ve been drawn now to Wilmer twice because I think there is an ethos of that here, and there are so many people who really fundamentally understand the importance and the value of that work.

    Ellsworth: So let’s talk a little bit about what you’re doing now. You happily rejoined WilmerHale’s litigation group in October of 2023 after leaving the mayor’s office. How has your experience in the mayor’s office, or how will it, contribute to your return to private practice here?

    McGuire: My experience in City Hall was certainly more of a crash course in civil litigation than I had had previously as a criminal prosecutor, where obviously my focus was elsewhere. And so my hope is really to be able to marry those two in my practice now, with a real focus here on those companies and clients that are attempting to navigate the landscape here in the city, in the state, and also in other state and local levels and to really try to take that as well as obviously the foundation and the brand that Wilmer brings with respect to all of its government-facing practices, and to marry those in a way that will hopefully really help the New York office, as well as the firm more broadly become an even more prominent presence here in New York.

    Ellsworth: Well, Brendan, as I said, we’re so happy to have you back at the firm. And I’m personally so happy to have you here on the podcast. So thank you so much for joining us today.

    McGuire: Thank you, Felicia. And thank you for carrying the torch here on the podcast. I did continue to listen to some episodes and thank you so much because I was very proud to be a part of this before I left.

    Ellsworth: Well, we’re proud to call you our first alum.

    McGuire: Great. 

    Ellsworth: Thank you, Brendan.

    McGuire: Thanks, Felicia. See you later.

    Ellsworth: Thank you, everyone listening, for tuning into this episode of In the Public Interest. We hope you’ll join us for our next episode. If you enjoyed this podcast, please take a minute to share with a friend and subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you listen to your podcasts. See you next time on In the Public Interest.

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