Mary Jo White

White Knight

Over the course of her career, Mary Jo White ’74 has been both prosecutor and defender, fighting terrorism as a U.S. Attorney in the 1990s and, more recently, working on behalf of high-profile corporate clients

By Mary Johnson

Winter 2010

As a prosecutor in both the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York, Mary Jo White’ 74 helped eradicate gang violence across huge swaths of New York City. She brought justice to the family of a young man unlawfully killed by a police officer on Christmas Eve and successfully prosecuted John Gotti. Such violent criminals and macabre crimes consumed White’s efforts from the start of her public service career in the late 1970s—a time when she was one of few women in the prosecutorial ranks. But White distinguished herself with a fearlessness and dedication that resulted in myriad convictions and courtroom victories, as well as a milestone appointment: In 1993, President Bill Clinton made White the first—and, so far, only—female U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

“I’m sure there were skeptics when I became U.S. Attorney,” says White, who is now a partner in the New York office of Debevoise & Plimpton, specializing in white-collar criminal defense and Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement. “But I think you win them over just by doing your job.”

Very quickly, White’s actions silenced her critics. 

In 1993, White’s first year as U.S. Attorney, she oversaw the prosecution of those responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing. That same year, her office also prosecuted Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as “the blind sheik,” who conspired to bomb the United Nations and multiple New York City landmarks. In investigating that case, White surmised that the thwarted plot was not an isolated incident, but rather the beginning of a dangerous trend. To address the emerging threat, she established a terrorism unit in the Southern District, making it the first U.S. Attorney’s Office in the country to have one. “We had learned a lot,” White recalls. “I didn’t want the country to lose that knowledge.”

Over the next nine years, terrorism cases consumed roughly 60 percent of her time. White’s office prosecuted Ramzi Ahmed Yousef (the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), who attempted—and failed—to blow up U.S. airliners flying back from Asia, and it brought an indictment against Osama Bin Laden for conspiring to destroy U.S. international defense installations in the late 1990s. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, White and her colleagues launched an investigation to determine who had perpetrated the catastrophic assault. “Obviously, that’s just a stunning set of national security issues,” she notes. And terrorism was only a small part of White’s docket, which also included cases involving major white collar crimes, the international drug trade, and money laundering schemes, to name a few.

In 2002, after being asked by the Bush administration to remain in office for an extra year, White stepped down from her post. “Turnover is good for the position,” she notes. “[The job] is something you want to do at absolutely your highest energy level every day.”

White has been asked to consider serving on the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. She admits the bench was tempting, but White has ultimately decided to go in a different, yet familiar, direction.

After stepping down as U.S. Attorney, she returned to Debevoise & Plimpton, where she has developed a thriving private practice. White represented New York Times editor Tim O’Brien in a libel case brought by Donald Trump, and a number of Fortune 100 companies in investigations initiated by the SEC and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She also defended clothing company Tommy Hilfiger when it came under investigation for federal criminal tax violations. “I like the action,” says White. “I have a metabolism that draws me to private practice.”

White credits her Columbia Law School education with paving the way for her successes in both the public and private sectors. And although she has found satisfaction in both legal realms, White reflects on her time in the U.S. Attorney’s Office as some of the best years of her career. “Your job is really to do what you think is right every day,” she says. “And those jobs are hard to come by.”