About that “Trump and the Russian law firm of the year” story

You’ve probably seen the “Donald Trump represented on ethics issue by Russian law firm of the year” story. And if you paid it only fleeting attention, you may not have recognized it as a classic instance of outrage clickbait fluff.

The firm turns out to be the venerable and far-flung firm of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, eighth largest in the U.S. and thirteenth largest in the world, per the American Lawyer rankings. Sheri Dillon, a tax specialist associated with Morgan’s Washington, D.C. office, was on hand at the press conference to assist Trump in his presentation on conflict of interest avoidance. Typical of BigLaw firms, Morgan employs much high-level legal talent — Texas Senator Ted Cruz practiced there — and represents all sorts of figures in public life and the political world. Not unusually for a world BigLaw leader, Morgan has an office in Moscow among its dozens of other offices worldwide; that outpost won plaudits for its success by one private group that rates lawyers.

As Snopes soon found, “Donald Trump is not the only high-level politician to have engaged the services of Morgan Lewis. In October 2016, Hillary Clinton used the firm” to help vet potential appointees. The Barack Obama campaign also used Morgan’s services.

Outfits that saw fit to treat this tale as important news included CNN, The Daily Beast, The Week (“Just let that sink in for a second”), The Independent, and many more. In some cases, publications circled back with rewrites as word began to get out that it might be sort of a non-story after all: whatever interesting connections there might be between Trump and Russia, this wasn’t one of them. In the meantime, the story had gotten countless thousands of outrage-shares.

For a somewhat similar instance of randomly connecting BigLaw dots in a wildly misleading way that failed to go viral — it concerned the firm of Sutherland, Asbill, and Brennan, also known for its tax expertise — see this 2013 post.


  • “Let that sink in for a second” is the worst way to describe this. The mere fact that Morgan Lewis does work relating to Russia leaves nothing to “sink in.” Most multi-national American-based law firms have some sort of practice relating to Russian/Ukraine/Baltic/Eastern Europe/etc.

    That said, mentioning this connection isn’t wholly frivolous. Morgan Lewis obviously does do a substantial amount of Russia-related business, perhaps more than any other major firm. Fred Fielding, who seems to me the most senior member of the team that wrote the white paper, did two presentations on the Russian sanctions in 2014. Lest it be unsaid, Fielding also has a long history of counseling Presidents, so there’s surely more reason to hire him than “Russia.”

    This is another frustrating example of something that isn’t “fake news” but is more like “exaggerated news.” The real news here is that Trump’s conflict-of-interest plan sucks.

    • I would agree with your characterization as “exaggerated news.” This is a story that started as more of a joke on Twitter, as in people noticing and laughing at the rediculousness of the situation, rather than anyone thinking it represented a serious connection or a sign of anything worthy of further investigation, let alone outrage. Then a couple of media outlets took the joke entirely too far by seemingly treating it as a serious story rather than the trivial venting that it was.

      There are, of course, plenty of other things to be outraged about, including the utter insufficiency of the plan Morgan Lewis has put together, and I’d personally still like to know why those many unlabeled folders nobody was allowed to get near sure seemed like they were full of blank paper.

  • I’ve used Morgan Lewis in the past and found them to be quite competent, once I got over their attorneys’ annoying habit of saying “????????????” when they answered the phone.

    • The material in quotes in your comment renders only as question marks on my browser, but I am going to guess it was something in Cyrillic.

      • Das vadanya.

  • It’s one word of 12 letters. My guess is “zdravstvujte,” a common greeting, literally translating as “Be in good health!” or “Prosper!”

  • […] plan [Milan Markovic/Legal Ethics Forum Prof. Bainbridge, Andrew Grewal series, Max Kennerly, earlier on Morgan Lewis] And the paper that summarizes the views of President’s most vocal critics […]