Clinton's Least-Known Lawyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 1998; Page B01
Her image already resides in a far corner of the public memory: Lt. Col. Oliver L. North testifying in uniform before the congressional committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal. Behind him, a woman so young and fresh-faced her light-brown hair falling past her shoulders that one television commentator initially mistook her for North's daughter.
Nicole K. Seligman was, in fact, one of North's lawyers, just a few years out of Harvard Law School, where she graduated at the top of her class and went on to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. As a young associate at Williams & Connolly, the Washington law firm renowned for its scorched-earth approach to criminal defense, Seligman had a ringside seat to history. Working with partner Brendan Sullivan Jr., she represented North before the congressional committee and later at his trial by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh and developed an abiding distaste for the independent-counsel statute.
Today, 11 years later and with a far different client facing off against another independent counsel, Seligman will again be a witness to history this time as an attorney for President Clinton when the president for the first time gives his account of his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky to the independent counsel.
Seligman, 41, is the least-known member of Clinton's triumvirate of defense lawyers, a quiet presence at the side of her partner, David E. Kendall, as he stands on the law firm's plaza denouncing alleged leaks by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, or striding with him into the federal courthouse for yet another closed hearing in the case.
But along with Mickey Kantor, the former commerce secretary and longtime Clinton ally who joined the legal team when the Lewinsky allegations broke in January, Seligman is one of few in Clinton's inner circle. She spent the weekend helping the president prepare for his encounter with the independent counsel. This afternoon she will be by the president's side in the White House Map Room as he offers his account to Starr's prosecutors.
Jane C. Sherburne, a former White House lawyer who worked closely with Seligman on Whitewater issues, describes her as "very smart, very much David's alter ego. He relies on her to make sure he has considered every angle of every issue. She's a very significant element in his representation of the Clintons."
Kendall twice took time from preparing for the president's grand jury testimony last week to heap praise on his partner. "Many brilliant lawyers have the personality of a root vegetable and she does not," he says. "She relates well to people of many different kinds, is able to win people's confidences and is very discreet, and that's exceedingly important on something like this, obviously."
Indeed, by all accounts, Seligman has won the trust and confidence of both the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton. "The first lady thinks the world of her," says Mrs. Clinton's press secretary, Marsha Berry.
"It really is striking, when you look at the things she's done over the years, that she's won the confidence and trust of people of all political stripes and persuasions from Thurgood Marshall to Oliver North to the president," says Seligman's law partner, Kevin Baine.
While friends say she is more politically in tune with Clinton than North, Seligman has taken care to keep her politics private, registering as an independent in the District, where she lives in a elegant Massachusetts Avenue apartment building. "In the course of a single conversation, Nikki has told me that Hillary Clinton is one of the most admirable women she has ever met in her life and that Oliver North would have made an excellent senator," says Richard Tofel, a friend from high school days who is now vice president of corporate communications at Dow Jones. "It tells me that she puts judgments about human beings above judgments about politics."
In a town where most white-collar criminal defense lawyers are men and most love nothing better than to get their names in the newspapers, Seligman is both an anomaly and an enigma a woman who has amassed significant power and contacts outside the public eye.
"She's a really interesting study in a woman who's become quietly powerful in Washington and the way she's done it is by being, first, brilliantly smart and, secondly, just incredibly discreet, and, thirdly, she hasn't sought the limelight," says one friend. "Unlike almost any other lawyer I know, she never seems to want this to happen. She likes to fly under the radar and that's where she is." Seligman, who began her working career in journalism (she was managing editor of the Harvard Crimson and worked for the Asian Wall Street Journal before heading to law school), begged off speaking for the record for this story. "It's not appropriate to talk about any of my clients, and I don't like talking about me," she said yesterday.
Friends and colleagues describe Seligman as a kind of golden girl who has always excelled at whatever she did, an intensively driven and intensely private woman who manages to combine a piercing intellect with humor, judgment and discretion. She is the kind of student who decided to study Japanese in ninth grade, launching a lifelong interest in things Asian; who is described as composed and mature even in college; who has an uncanny knack for attracting mentors and admirers.
They portray a supremely organized woman who manages to remember the birthdays of friends' children even while in trial, or who as Kendall recalls imported a cappuccino maker to an Arkansas warehouse full of Whitewater documents so that the Williams & Connolly team could sip espresso while delving through reams of paper.
"She was bright, witty, charming, tough, everything you would want as a managing editor," says Robert Boorstin, an administration official who worked for Seligman on the Crimson. "I had a huge crush on her, as did everybody I knew who knew her."
"She is incredibly smart and clearly as good a law clerk as I've had in chambers," said federal appeals court Judge Harry Edwards, who interrupted a vacation to gush about his former clerk, who has become a close friend. "She can be deadly serious one minute and a complete character and silly and frivolous the next."
She grew up on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, a lawyer from a family of lawyers her father, now 94; her uncle; and her sister Stephanie, who was a year ahead of Nicole at Fieldston, an elite New York private school, as well as at Harvard and Harvard Law. Stephanie Seligman is now a mergers and acquisitions partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, a New York firm whose workaholic ethos makes it in many ways the corporate twin of Washington's Williams & Connolly.
Williams & Connolly is a firm renowned for the hours worked by its lawyers, but even by firm standards Seligman is viewed as a workhorse, an inveterate worrier who can be found at her desk, picking apart a legal problem, to all hours.
North, who has become friends with Seligman and still uses her and the firm as his lawyers, recalls her staying up all night the evening before his congressional testimony to catalogue a shipment of documents that the committee had just delivered; by morning, he said, Seligman had organized the papers and mastered the details.
North also recounts how Seligman helped his marriage. She went the extra mile to debunk press reports that he had purchased a car for his secretary, Fawn Hall. "There's a certain element of being an attorney, no matter how competent you are there has to be some compassion," he says. "Nicole was absolutely crucial in getting to the bottom of that and reassuring my best friend and the mother of my four children that there was nothing to that. She knew how terribly hurtful and painful that was to me and she went out of her way to make sure that Betsy knew there was nothing to it. . . . A man wouldn't have done that."
Seligman also has a decidedly glamorous and high-society side. She was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Caroline Kennedy, whose college dormitory living room adjoined Seligman's dorm room, and represents both Kennedy children. She has dated on and off for years Eli S. Jacobs, an investor 20 years her senior who once owned the Baltimore Orioles but sold the team when he filed for personal bankruptcy.
Said Neil Manne, a Houston lawyer who became friends with Seligman when they were young lawyers in Washington: "I've come across people in the litigation trade who . . . only know her as someone they think of as very very serious and intense, which she is as a lawyer. She is also just the funniest, most whimsical person in private among friends."
Some colleagues say Seligman immediately gravitated to the highest-profile cases of the firm; one person who worked with her years ago says that even as a young associate Seligman would tend to sit with "the big cheeses" in the firm's private dining room rather than with her peers. But they say that an inevitable consequence of that has been that Seligman has remained in the shadows, in many situations the second lawyer on cases run by others.
Says partner Robert Barnett, "She was a superstar from the moment she walked in the door and has been a superstar ever since." A roster of the matters she has handled suggests a career far more interesting and varied than that of most lawyers. As a summer associate at the firm, she worked on The Washington Post's defense of former Mobil executive William Tavoulareas's libel suit.
On arriving as an associate, she got an early lesson in prosecutorial overstepping. She was assigned to help defend former General Dynamics executive James Beggs. The case ended up with the government not only dropping the indictment, but apologizing to Beggs for the damage that had been done to his reputation and career.
She helped successfully defend director Constantin Costa-Gavras against a libel suit by three former U.S. Embassy officials over his film "Missing." Having seen the independent-counsel statute in operation against North, she wrote a brief challenging the constitutionality of the statute on behalf of former Justice Department official Edward Schmultz in the case that ended up with the Supreme Court affirming the law.
Now, in addition to representing the president and first lady, she is the lead lawyer for AFL-CIO Secretary Richard L. Trumka in the federal probe of the Teamsters Union. Her practice ranges from advising press clients (she does libel work for the Jewish newspaper the Forward) to handling medical malpractice cases to quietly helping friends with legal matters such as obtaining security clearances.
More than a decade after she was mistaken for North's daughter, Seligman still looks far younger than her years, with an innocent countenance that leads adversaries to discount her at their peril. "There's velvet on the outside and there's hard rock on the inside," says former White House special counsel Lanny Davis, who tangled with Seligman over disclosures about the president's fund-raising calls. "There were one or more occasions where Nicole, let us say, expressed herself rather strongly to me about not doing anything without consulting her or David. She did not hold back her feelings on the subject. Her language was, let us say, rather direct."
Says North, "Nobody messes with Nicole Seligman."
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