Jamie Gorelick’s Storied Career — As Told Through Her Oral History
By Stuart Taylor, Jr.
Based on Jamie Gorelick’s Oral History for the ABA’s Women Trailblazers Project
Jamie Gorelick is a true giant of the legal profession, with a career steeped in legal, policy, and corporate skills and accomplishments. She has represented a dazzling array of clients and served with distinction as a leader of the organized bar and in government jobs including Defense Department General Counsel and Deputy Attorney General. She was a leader of the 9/11 commission and served on major corporate and nonprofit boards. She has befriended and advanced the careers of countless talented colleagues. And she has been a devoted wife to Richard Waldhorn and mother to their two children.
Gorelick was born in Brooklyn in 1950. Her father had emigrated from Ukraine as a two-year-old in the 1920s and her mother was the daughter of immigrants. Both had grown up very poor.
In school, she worked hard, all the time. Surprised that she got into Harvard College, she loved it and made numerous friends for life, some of whom became professional colleagues. Academically, “I ended up finding a home in a small major called Social Studies, where students were exposed to brilliant people – both faculty and students.” They studied the intellectual explorations of great thinkers, “largely about how we structure ourselves as societies.” Many of her friends today are “the people with whom I have been discussing hard questions since we were eighteen.”
“Pretty much as soon as I got to Harvard,” Gorelick recalled, “the school erupted into various paroxysms. . . . There were strikes every spring of my first three years. African American students went on strike one spring. We had a strike arising out of the bombing in Cambodia.” Some of her friends were radicalized and “very much thought you had to go outside the system.” But while Gorelick sensed that “the country was going off track in a pretty serious way,” and she gravitated to the civil rights and civil liberties community, she did not agree with radical politics.
There was still lots of discrimination against women at Harvard. “For example, you could not apply for a Rhodes or many of the other fellowships. . . . The second-class status of women at Harvard was apparent every day and needed to be addressed.” Gorelick graduated from college and entered Harvard Law School in 1972. It was an even more heavily male environment, with women limited to about 15 percent of the class and very few women faculty. She also missed the “very open and very questioning academic atmosphere of my college years.” The law school had more of a “trade-school approach,” in which “one didn’t ask a lot of ‘why’ questions.” She bridled at this at first but came to like it.
When she graduated in 1975, Gorelick decided to become the first woman lawyer and one of two associates at seven-partner Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin. Name partner Nat Lewin had done a teaching stint at Harvard and suggested she apply. She thought the tiny but high-powered Miller, Cassidy would give her more valuable experience, sooner, than a larger firm. And it did. “I learned a lot and I had a blast.”
Gorelick started work in May 1975 without taking even a day off between law school and work because “they needed help” fast. Gorelick “really liked internal [corporate] investigations and the representation of individuals and companies in difficult circumstances,” which she found more interesting than ordinary commercial litigation. Her first case involved senior partner Jack Miller’s representation in the Supreme Court of President Nixon in his effort to protect his papers from being taken by an act of Congress. She helped John Cassidy and Miller represent one of the largest grocery farmers in Florida, who felt the Agriculture Department had shut him out of the parsley growing allocations. Within a few years she had her own clients, including NASCAR, GE, Aetna, Lockheed, National Public Radio, and many individuals.
“I liked it all,” Gorelick recalled. “I got up every morning wanting to go to work. And I worked really hard. I liked drafting briefs and doing legal research. I liked the witnesses. I liked the clients. I particularly liked getting out into the country and seeing how work was done – seeing how parsley was grown and how radio programs were made and how race car drivers drove. All of that was terrific.” She also did “a lot of pro bono work for a wide variety of institutions, many of them in the women’s rights arena.”
From early in her 18 years at Miller, Cassidy, she pursued and won leadership positions in the D.C. Bar, moving from appointment to the Ethics Committee to election as D.C. Bar President in 1992, and in the American Bar Association’s Litigation Section, where she made many friends across the country, especially in the white-collar defense bar.
Gorelick also took on part-time government work in 1978, as the youngest member and then Vice-Chair of a Defense Department task force to assess whether it should, like other government departments, have an inspector general. She became a partner at Miller, Cassidy in 1981.
Throughout, Gorelick “was very conscious of gender discrimination generally and tried to help within the legal profession, within my firm and within other firms, within the Bar. I was an advocate for women and very active in the organizations that advocated for women, serving on the board of the National Women’s Law Center. It was a very important part of my life.”
With the advent of the Clinton Administration in 1993, Gorelick organized the substantive briefings both for the first woman ever nominated and for the first ever confirmed to be Attorney General. The nomination of Zoe Baird, who had been General Counsel of Gorelick’s client Aetna, was buried in a tsunami of bad publicity when it was revealed that she and her husband had failed to pay the taxes on their undocumented immigrant nanny. Gorelick also helped brief Janet Reno, an elected state attorney in Florida, who was confirmed and served from 1993 until 2000.
Also in early 1993, Gorelick herself was nominated and confirmed to be General Counsel of the Defense Department, which has some 10,000 lawyers. Her projects included helping with the post-Cold War consolidation of the defense industry and seeking to extricate the Administration from the wreckage of Bill Clinton’s ill-fated promise to allow gay people to serve openly in the military. When the Administration fell back on its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, Gorelick had to put that four-word slogan “into a form that the military – 1.5 million strong – could live by.” For all the challenges of her year as General Counsel, Gorelick recalled, “I very quickly grew to love the Pentagon – the discipline, the rigor involved in living up to commitments and meeting deadlines and doing what you said you were going to do.”
Attorney General Reno and the White House persuaded Gorelick in early 1994 to leave the Pentagon to become Deputy Attorney General. “Janet Reno and I became great friends,” Gorelick recalled. “I came to admire her and like her.” Reno, for her part, gave Gorelick “tremendous authority within the Department, much greater authority than almost any of my predecessors had had.” While Reno had the last word on the biggest decisions, Gorelick essentially ran the Justice Department and its more than 100,000 lawyers.
Gorelick’s history of accumulating super-talented friends enabled her to staff her office with a “dream team.” It included her Harvard friends Merrick Garland and Seth Waxman, who became her top aides at Justice and, later, Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit and Solicitor General of the United States, respectively.
During her three years as Deputy, “There was a new issue every 15 minutes. . . . They just came at you a mile a minute.” The major challenges included “the calamity at Waco at the very beginning of the Clinton Administration,” when a law enforcement siege ended in a fire that killed 76 members of the Branch Davidian religious sect; bombings at abortion clinics, black churches, and the April 1995 Oklahoma City truck bombing that killed at least 168; “Haitians and Cubans taking to their boats, overwhelming Florida with their numbers”; and the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft.
“I am proud that there were no scandals or investigations of the Department during our tenure,” Gorelick reflected. “I think that the esprit-de-corps within the Department was high. I think there was tremendous integrity in the decision-making. . . . We spawned an awful lot of very wonderful, brilliant careers.”
Gorelick stepped down as Deputy in April 1997. “It is a job that you can only do, in my view, if you sprint,” she explained, and “there is just so long that you can sprint. I had been sprinting since the ‘92 election. I had two young kids.” And she wanted to spend more time with them.
Her next job was Vice Chair of Fannie Mae. “I liked the fact that Fannie Mae had a mission, to promote home ownership and affordable rental housing, as well as community development,” she recalled. She started in September 1997 and left in mid-2003 to return to her first love, practicing law. She chose Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, which she knew well through friends, and which merged with a Boston firm about the same time Gorelick joined to become Wilmer Hale.
Gorelick had been appointed in 2002 to the to the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, known as the 9/11 Commission, and devoted much of her time to it through 1993. The ten members worked well across party lines – a phenomenon that has since vanished from American public life – with Gorelick having her fellow Commissioners over for dinner a number of times. It published its findings in a book narrating the facts, which Gorelick called “the broadest, deepest look at the national security apparatus of the United States ever undertaken.”
Meanwhile, after joining Wilmer Hale, “it was fun [again] to have multiple clients with an array of problems and issues and personalities.” She became head of both the firm’s highly regarded new National Security Practice and its Regulatory and Government Affairs practice and she joined the Management Committee. Her big cases at Wilmer Hale – where she is still a partner in 2020 – included being part of the team representing BP in its effort to recover from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and counseling cities including Baltimore and Chicago on how to handle Justice Department investigations of police violence.
The corporate and nonprofit boards on which Gorelick has sat include Amazon, Verisign, United Technologies, Schlumberger, Ltd., the MacArthur Foundation, the Harvard Board of Overseers, the Carnegie Endowment, the Urban Institute (of which she was chair), and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, as well as the National Women’s Law Center. “Each one of those experiences,” she recalled, “has given me and continues to give me insights that inform everything else I do.”