As former federal prosecutor Matthew Axelrod puts it, there's a "well-trod" path between the U.S. Department of Justice and white-collar defense practices at big law firms.
Axelrod, who left the Justice Department earlier this month, is taking a less-traveled road. In January, he'll join Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll as a partner in the firm's Washington office, handling class actions and other plaintiffs work.
"Joining a plaintiffs firm is natural extension of the work I did as a prosecutor over the past 10 years," he said in a phone interview. "It's still working to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable. It's just using the civil justice system instead of the criminal justice system to do that."
Axelrod stepped down earlier this month as an associate deputy attorney general, a front-office position he'd held for the past two years. He said he didn't make a public announcement about his plans to leave—such an announcement tends to trigger cold calls from law firms and headhunters. Instead, he reached out to firms he was interested in on both the plaintiffs and defense side.
Cohen Milstein had a "real reputation for integrity," Axelrod said. He said he liked that the firm embraced a "private attorney general model," bringing "enforcement actions that complement what the federal and state authorities are able to do."
Axelrod said he networked with contacts to get an introduction with firm name partner Joseph Sellers. "For a guy like me leaving DOJ, there is a well-trod path to the big defense firms," he said. "On the plaintiffs side, it’s a little trickier … I had to do a lot more of my own networking and due diligence."
He speculated that ex-prosecutors tended to land at white collar defense practices because they're already comfortable with criminal law. The fact that plaintiffs firms often collect fees based on what they win may also have something to do with it. "Lawyers by nature are risk-averse," he said, "and the contingency fee model of plaintiffs firms may deter some folks from doing it."
At Cohen Milstein, Axelrod said his work will run the gamut of the firm's practice areas, which include securities fraud, antirust, False Claims Act, civil rights and consumer protection. "My trial experience is something that I think will be of value and use to the firm. I think I'll get plugged in to some cases right away that are slated for trial, and also working to build my practice."
In a statement, Sellers said the firm was looking forward to Axelrod's new role as a "private attorney general."
"We are very pleased that Matt is joining the firm," Sellers said. "He brings a broad portfolio of strengths, including significant trial experience as a federal prosecutor and deep expertise in the health care fraud, financial malfeasance and False Claims Act areas."
Axelrod joined the Justice Department in 2003, serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami. In the Southern District of Florida, Axelrod's successes included the convictions of the sheriff of Broward County, Fla., and members of a major drug cartel, the Cali Cartel.
He moved to Main Justice in Washington in 2009, working under Lanny Breuer, the former head of the department's criminal division who left earlier this year to return to Covington & Burling. In his most recent post in the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, Axelrod pointed to his work on healthcare fraud cases as a highlight.
Axelrod's last day at the Justice Department was Dec. 6. In the month before he starts at Cohen Milstein on Jan. 6, he said he'll be "decompressing."