Practice Area Insights: White Collar Defense & Internal Investigations

Published: Mar 25, 2024

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Attorneys in this practice area represent individuals and companies accused of financial crimes in criminal suits, often brought by the DOJ, and conduct investigations at companies to determine if any parties engaged in wrongful conduct. White collar attorneys often work as prosecutors either before, after, or in between stints as defense counsel in private practice. The day-to-day practice of white-collar defense is similar to civil litigation and includes discovery, research, drafting, factual development, and motion practice, but with significant client contact, especially when representing individuals. Internal investigations can be a very hands-on practice. Attorneys will often go to a company to review documents and interview employees to develop an understanding of facts in the face of allegations of financial or other impropriety by individuals at the corporation. Lawyers in this area are often called in to be crisis managers.

In our 2023 edition of Practice Perspectives: Vault Law's Guide to Legal Practice Areas, attorneys from law firms with top-ranked White Collar Defense & Internal Investigations practices share insights about their practice, including what a typical day is like and what training they recommend for interested jobseekers. Keep reading for their insights!

What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?

Uzo Asonye, Partner—Davis Polk: As a lead counsel on various white collar matters, I oversee the investigative and/or defense team and direct the overall strategy of the matter. A typical day may consist of meeting with clients to discern the underlying facts, preparing for and conducting key witness interviews and/or depositions, oral argument and other court appearances and hearings, presenting to or interacting with government regulators, advising the client, reviewing key documents and evidence, drafting and editing briefs and investigative reports, working with expert witnesses, and preparing for and conducting trials. I also teach and mentor associates and collaborate with counsel and partners.

Damali Taylor, Partner—O'Melveny: I wake up, I put a fire hose in my mouth, and I start drinking! Right now, I am handling a government-facing investigation on behalf of a corporate client where I am preparing a witness to testify under oath. Today I’ll spend time preparing for that. I handle civil trials as part of my practice as well and have a class action trial coming up, so I’ll also be spending time preparing our trial strategy. For one of my clients, I am coordinating counsel for all of their serious matters throughout the country. Some of those matters are in the thick of discovery, others are close to resolution. We also have mediations and briefing coming up, as well as hearings. What I do on a given day can vary considerably. I could be interviewing witnesses, interfacing with the government, revising a brief, arguing a motion, determining trial strategy, responding to a client emergency, etc. It just depends. I really enjoy that.

Nisa Gosselink-Ulep, Partner—Paul Hastings
My typical day starts at the end of the prior day when I plan out what I want to accomplish next. The next morning, I reprioritize to address the urgent questions or requests that inevitably came in overnight. Since I have an international practice, I work with clients and colleagues in all time zones and often work via email and video conferences, sometimes starting early in the morning or late in the evening. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, much of my work has shifted to a virtual environment, although travel started to return in 2022 with work trips to England, Germany, Italy, and Dubai.

In a typical morning I work on matters related to multiple clients. For example, I may virtually interview someone to learn about the compliance program of an entity acquired by a client, followed by a meeting to discuss process changes to strengthen a different company’s compliance program, and then another discussion about recommendations to address the root causes of misconduct identified through an internal investigation. While I perform many of the same tasks—video conferences, phone calls, and emails—every day, no day is ever the same.

What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?

Uzo Asonye: There are many valuable professional experiences and courses that will help prepare law students for a career as a white collar defense attorney. Law students may wish to intern at the DOJ, a U.S. Attorneys’ Office, the SEC, the FTC or other government entities to gain firsthand experience in the regulatory and investigative process. In addition, an internship or clerkship with a federal or state judge can provide a unique opportunity to observe trials, understand the adjudicative process and hone research and writing skills.

Law school courses that are particularly useful to white collar defense include Trial Practice, Appellate Practice, Federal and State Courts, Securities Regulation, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, advanced legal writing courses, clinics and other courses related to prosecution.

Damali Taylor: In my opinion, being a prosecutor is the best kind of training ground you can have. I think that is true for all kinds of work, but certainly, for white collar, it’s so important for even the most junior associates to start thinking on a macro level about their cases. That means looking beyond the immediate task to how things fit into the big picture. If it were your case, if you were the owner, what would you want to know? What would you want to have happen? Start seeing around corners. Aim to be a strategic thinker from the very beginning; the more you develop that, the more value you’re going to add all across the board on your matters and definitely in white collar. Clerkships tend to be good for developing your writing skills. But it’s most helpful to be able to tell a story in a compelling way.

Nisa Gosselink-Ulep: My practice is truly global in scope and requires working with people all over the world, most of whom are not U.S.-trained lawyers and include professionals in internal audit, finance, compliance, operations, and other areas. Being bilingual or multilingual gives you a nice leg up for sure. More specific to the legal profession, research, writing, legal analysis, and creative thinking are fundamental to my practice area, particularly since there is limited traditional case law to rely upon in this space. Being able to conduct interviews and clearly and succinctly communicate, particularly with someone who may not speak English as their first language, is critical. In addition, document review, eDiscovery, and related procedures are central to conducting investigations, so understanding these tools and processes is important. For compliance work, understanding basic financial controls processes will also give you a head start. Finally, time management, planning, matter management, and fundamental organizational skills are as critical to my practice as they are to any lawyer.