After leading the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for 14 years, Leigh Skipper is joining Duane Morris’ white-collar defense division at the end of June.
Skipper, who has served as chief federal defender for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania since 2009, is slated to join the firm’s Philadelphia headquarters June 27 after serving his last day at the federal community defender office on June 17. The move brings Duane Morris a public defender’s perspective in government investigations and commercial litigation following a slew of prosecutor-side hires.
While Skipper will focus on aiding white-collar clients in government investigations and regulatory compliance, leaders at the firm expect him to draw from his experience in a wide variety of case types to handle complex commercial litigation and antitrust matters.
“The major changes will be the development of a client base, and there will be more regulatory work involved,” Skipper said in an interview this week. “But the nature of the offenses in the white-collar practice is really not different from what I’ve been doing, from a substantive legal standpoint.”
Skipper said he will bring broad-based experience that comes from overseeing the defender office in a district that handles a mix of matters that tracks how they’re distributed nationally.
“In other words, there’s no particular disproportionate subject matter of cases like you might find in other districts, so we’re pretty representative,” Skipper said.
He said John Nixon, a close friend of Skipper who serves on Duane Morris’ governing partners board, made the introduction when leaders of the trial unit were looking to add “marquee” talent to the white-collar bench.
After beginning at the Eastern District’s Federal Community Defender Office in the 1980s as an assistant federal defender handling fraud cases and violent criminal offenses, Skipper gradually climbed the ranks to supervisor of the office’s trial unit, eventually becoming appointed by the board of trustees as chief federal defender.
In the next six months, the board of trustees of the Federal Community Defender Office said they will launch a national search to find Skipper’s successor in the hope of announcing an appointment by the close of 2022, said David Rudovsky, chair of the board of trustees of the Federal Defender Office and founding partner of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.
Helen Marino, who serves as Skipper’s second-in-command in the role of first assistant federal defender, will occupy an interim role as chief federal defender while the search is ongoing.
Skipper’s move comes amid a renewed era of regulatory and enforcement vigor under the Biden administration, prompting leaders in Duane Morris’ trial practice to bulk up its white-collar defense, corporate investigations and regulatory compliance bench.
Including Skipper, Duane Morris has added five lawyers to the now-70-lawyer white-collar division since 2020, in anticipation of the Biden administration’s increased focus on white-collar enforcement measures and investigations compared to Biden’s predecessor.
Federal enforcers have stepped up their efforts in the wake of pandemic-era fraud, including loan fraud from when the government bailed out the economy in 2020 along with crimes associated with digital currencies, according to Duane Morris’ trial practice leaders.
Over the last few years, the firm’s white-collar clients, as well as clients and contacts of those clients, have seen an increase in government subpoenas, prosecutions and investigations, according to leaders of the 370-lawyer trial practice group.
“The Biden administration has definitely increased enforcement and investigations, government investigations, which leads to work for our white collar lawyers,” said Duane Morris partner Wayne Mack, who co-chairs the trial practice group.
“We’ve seen an uptick in SEC-type matters, antitrust matters and basically all types of criminal or quasi-criminal administrative matters that arise out of the enforcement of federal statutes,” Mack said.
In recent years, the firm has largely focused on recruiting attorneys with a background in the prosecutorial side of government litigation, like Bill McSwain in January 2020 and Michael Rinaldi in March 2021, making Skipper’s defender background a welcome force of “balance,” said Sharon Caffrey, who co-chairs the trial practice group with Mack.
“We brought in a number of people from the U.S. attorney’s office, and Leigh knows the other side, the defense side,” Caffrey said. “That is a huge value add. … When you’re a federal public defender, you don’t pick what’s going to trial—that’s why Leigh has such diverse trial experience.”
Skipper echoed her sentiment, suggesting the federal defender’s side is more of a challenge than litigating as a government prosecutor because public defense attorneys have no say in what charges or evidence are brought to bear in a case.
“The government can orchestrate and determine who is charged and when they’re charged and how much investigation is sufficient to bring a case before a grand jury,” Skipper said. “From a defense perspective, I think we have to be more creative. … Because of my perspective of being in those adverse scenarios for years, I will bring the perspective that balances what typically comes from a prosecutorial perspective.”
Reactions from board members at the Federal Community Defender Office have been a mix of sadness over Skipper’s departure and appreciation for his contributions over the years.
“Through Leigh’s leadership, the Federal Defender Office has set a national standard for excellence in advocacy through the work of the trial unit, the appellate unit and the Capital Habeas Unit,” Paul Hetznecker, president of the board of trustees, said in an email statement.. “Leigh’s contributions to the Federal Defender are immeasurable. We wish him all the best.”
Board members credit Skipper’s leadership with expanding the capital habeas unit that was started prior to his appointment as chief federal defender and overseeing the creation of the non-capital habeas unit, which serves as a resource for judges to appoint a public defender in cases where a defendant is not facing a death sentence.
But for those who are facing such a sentence, Rudovsky said Pennsylvania’s death row has shrunk significantly in recent years, due in large part to the efforts of the capital habeas unit.
“They are so well regarded that lawyers in that unit are appointed by judges around the country where the defender office doesn’t have the resources that we have,” Rudovsky said. “Lawyers from that unit have been appointed to represent defendants in capital trials around the country.”
Reprinted with permission from The Legal Intelligencer, © ALM Media Properties LLC. All rights reserved.