Once a niche practice developed by only some law firms, white-collar defense has become a core practice with national and international scope at most large American law firms. During the past 15 years, white-collar defense has grown to respond to the globalization of both American and foreign corporations, the expansion of government oversight of businesses in the U.S. and abroad, and the numerous financial scandals that have erupted over the same period.
“White-collar defense” captures a broad set of substantive areas of the law, all of them arising from the myriad ways that local, state, federal and foreign governments regulate businesses and entrepreneurs — what they say to investors and the general public about their own successes and failures (securities law); how they compete with one another (antitrust law); how they win business, deliver services and seek payment when governments are themselves the customers (False Claims Act, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act); how businesses treat the environment; and whether they comply with general laws against theft, fraud, bribery, tax evasion and corruption. Public officials must navigate similar rules and thus present similar types of issues included under the broad category of white-collar defense.
The practice demands particularly versatile lawyers who deliver a range of services. White-collar lawyers try cases in court. They also specialize in risk management and compliance, training businesses and their individual employees about ways to minimize potential criminal and civil liability. Corporations engage white-collar lawyers to conduct internal investigations of their own business practices to assess and prepare for the risk of criminal and civil liability. Individuals and corporations demand white-collar representation as much when they are merely witnesses to alleged wrongdoing as when they are accused of it. White-collar litigation also involves assessing victims’ damages and their potential remedies as well as representing those accused of wrongdoing in administrative and court proceedings.
White-collar practices also must anticipate and prepare for the potential trajectory of a white-collar case. For example, an internal investigation identifying potential criminal or civil issues can lead to government enforcement actions and follow-up civil claims by alleged victims or competitors—all arising from the same conduct. The risk of criminal punishment and civil fines and liability potentially running into the billions of dollars, increase the complexity of white-collar matters and the demand for sophisticated counsel.