The ultimate D.C. power players

So, you want to impress your friends and relatives with your knowledge about how Washington works? I mean, about how it really works?

Then send them a copy of Masters of the Game: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Firm, which will tell them all they need to know, and much more, “about who really pulls the strings in Washington law, media, politics, and to a degree, even business,” as author Kim Eisler puts it.

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The subjects of the book are the lawyers at Williams & Connolly — a firm most people outside the nation’s capital probably have never heard of. Eisler, who covered the firm for more than two decades as a reporter for The American Lawyer, Legal Times and Washingtonian magazine, calls it “the most powerful band of American lawyers in history.”

That may be an overstatement, but not by much. Founded by trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, along with Paul Connolly, in 1967, the firm quickly established a reputation for its “scorched-earth” policy — i.e., going to almost any lengths to keep its clients from going to jail.

“Opponents of Williams & Connolly had a different term for their tactics, calling their methods ‘the scorpion defense,’ ” Eisler writes. “A prospective adversary knows that if you attack them, you are the one who is going to get stung.”

Williams was already famous for defending such clients as Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) — one of the few cases he lost — Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa and gangsters Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello. But until his death from cancer in 1988, Williams “originated what would become the trademark of his law firm for the next 50 years — finding outrageous arguments to make when all else failed,” and attacking the prosecution for violating the defendant’s rights.

But the bulk of this absorbing book isn’t about Williams and clients he kept out of jail, or his ownership of the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Orioles, or famous clients like George Steinbrenner and Washington Post owner Kay Graham, whose granddaughter Katharine Weymouth, the Post’s present publisher, once worked for Williams & Connolly, as did Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Instead, it’s about five remarkable men he hired who helped make his firm even more famous and powerful after his death. They’re best described in the book’s jacket:

“Brendan Sullivan, the litigator who defended Oliver North and has rarely lost a case; Gregory Craig, who developed the defense that saved John Hinckley, brokered the deal that sent Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba, and was one of the most influential figures in the rise of Barack Obama; David Kendall, the Indiana intellectual who won acquittal for President Clinton in the impeachment saga; Bob Barnett, who built a cottage industry as a part time book ‘lawyer’ into the most influential media agent practice in Washington; and [Larry] Lucchino, whose shrewd lawyer’s mentality led the Boston Red Sox to their first World Championship in 86 years.”

There isn’t enough room to tell the story of all five here, who, like other partners, make between $3 million and $4 million a year, but trust me, Eisler justifies his description of today’s Williams & Connolly as “now more powerful than ever, quietly and secretively controlling the strings of Washington’s puppets.”

He points out that, unlike many powerful firms that have offices all over the country or world, Williams & Connolly is the most prominent firm in the U.S. that doesn’t have offices anywhere but Washington. As the secretive Sullivan, who rarely talks to reporters, told the author, “Who needs them? Too many offices just breed contempt.”

Williams & Connolly lawyers move easily in and out of government, as has Craig, who just returned to the firm after stepping down as White House counsel, and interact easily with the private sector, and Barnett, who negotiated million-dollar-plus book contacts for Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, among others.

Eisler sums up his book with these words: “Twenty-two years after the death of Edward Bennett Williams, the firm that bears his name is richer and bigger than ever, and it still clings to his iconoclastic values and aphorism about how law should be practiced — and it isn’t the chummy club way.”