A Labor And Employment Practice Raises The Bar

Editor: Mr. Dreiband, would you tell our readers something about your background and professional experience?

Dreiband: Prior to Akin Gump, I served most recently as General Counsel of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Before that I served as the Deputy Administrator of the United States Department of Labor's Wage & Hour Division. From 1997 to 2000 I worked for Kenneth Starr as Associate Independent Counsel in the Office of Independent Counsel. I also practiced law at a large law firm in Chicago for many years. When I first graduated from law school I served as a law clerk to the Honorable William J. Bauer of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. I did my undergraduate work at Princeton University. I also hold a Master's degree from Harvard University and I received my law degree from the Northwestern University School of Law.

Editor: Please describe your service with Ken Starr. What were the highlights of that experience?

Dreiband: My work involved investigations and the prosecution of matters within the jurisdiction of the Office of the Independent Counsel. The highlights included working with a group of dedicated and talented lawyers, including Ken Starr himself, and with special agents on assignment from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. These people exuded a tremendous sense of courage, duty and professionalism in what was, for all of us, a very difficult time. My colleagues did their work honorably and with distinction. A particular highlight of this period for me occurred when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's Office of Inspector General honored me with a special commendation for leading an investigation and prosecution that led to the conviction of a former Associate Attorney General of the United States.

Editor: And your time as General Counsel at the EEOC? How did you come to be appointed?

Dreiband: Colleagues at the Department of Labor recommended that the White House and the EEOC Chair, Cari Dominguez, consider me for the position. Following a series of interviews, initially with Chair Dominguez and then at the White House, the President nominated me. After the Senate confirmed my nomination, I was sworn into office.

Editor: What are the duties of the EEOC's General Counsel?

Dreiband: The General Counsel is responsible for the conduct of the EEOC's litigation. In serving as head of the litigation program, I managed approximately 300 attorneys nationwide and a litigation docket of about 500 pending cases. I also argued cases in the United States Courts of Appeals and worked with the Solicitor General of the United States on Supreme Court matters. In addition, I worked with the White House Counsel's Office, the White House Domestic Policy Counsel, the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice, the Solicitor of Labor, and a variety of other government officials and agencies on various matters that involved the enforcement of our nation's civil rights laws.

Editor: Would you share with us the challenges of the position?

Dreiband: The EEOC General Counsel position is challenging for many reasons. The General Counsel is involved in and responsible for the federal government's litigation of civil rights cases at every level of our federal court system up to and including the Supreme Court of the United States. Also, the Commission participates in state court matters as a friend of the court.

The General Counsel must be able to make judgments about the wide variety of cases the Commission litigates. For example, when I served as General Counsel, I personally reviewed all friend of the court filings at every level, all appellate matters, and significant district court matters. The General Counsel must decide whether to initiate litigation in the first instance. The General Counsel must also decide the positions the government takes in the federal appellate courts, and must make recommendations to the Solicitor General about the government's position in Supreme Court matters.

The General Counsel position is also challenging because it involves the management of hundreds of attorneys. Personnel decisions can be difficult, especially because the General Counsel typically comes to the job without having worked at the EEOC prior to being nominated by the President.

Other challenges include interactions with the media and with a variety of organizations that are interested in the EEOC's work. It is a position that calls for diplomatic skill.

Editor: And the high points?

Dreiband: There are many. For starters, I have immense admiration for the people at the EEOC. They work with limited resources and under difficult circumstances, and they do so because they have a deep commitment to the elimination of unlawful discrimination. That dedication to equal opportunity for everyone - which permeates the EEOC - provides the foundation for very dedicated work by those charged with enforcement of the nation's civil rights laws.

A number of cases affected me on a personal level. Whether they were newsworthy or not, it was a privilege to help victims of unlawful discrimination, to provide access to justice that might otherwise be denied, and to right wrongs.

Editor: How did you come to Akin Gump? What were the things that attracted you to the firm?

Dreiband: The people at Akin Gump are the most important reason I am here. I had known a number of them prior to my joining the firm, and the longer I am here the more impressed I am with the quality of its lawyers and their work. In addition, the firm has a strong commitment to labor and employment law, and its practice in that area is one of the finest in the country. That practice is also supported by very talented lawyers from a variety of disciplines and practice areas across the firm.

Editor: If you can, would you tell us about Akin Gump's labor and employment practice?

Dreiband: The firm's founders in Washington, DC were labor lawyers, as is the current Chairman, Bruce McLean. That impressed me. Today, the firm has around 80 lawyers who practice labor and employment law. This is a sophisticated practice and involves the representation of employers in the most complex and difficult cases that arise in this area, including large class action suits. Akin Gump is the only firm to have two former EEOC General Counsel, and the practice also includes individuals who have served in high positions at the Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Justice, and other agencies. The firm has talented lawyers at every level.

Editor: How does your particular expertise fit into the firm's labor and employment mix?

Dreiband: My expertise cuts across some of the firm's significant subspecialties. For example, my background includes expertise in the area of wage and hour laws. I was involved in drafting the new overtime regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act when I served at the Department of Labor. And the firm has a very significant presence in this particular arena. My EEOC litigation experience is valuable for the firm's extensive EEOC practice. And my background in appellate work fits in well with the firm's labor and employment appellate practice and the firm's general appellate practice.

Editor: Your years of government service must represent a valuable resource to the firm in terms of accessing government.

Dreiband: Knowing people in government always helps. People who serve in government are committed to law enforcement, and any personal or professional connections are secondary to that imperative. My experience in government helps me understand the perspective of those who are charged with the public's trust. And understanding the government's perspective helps solve clients' problems.

Editor: Akin Gump has the reputation of being one of the best-connected firms in the country, in terms of dealing with the government. How does this platform help you in your practice?

Dreiband: Akin Gump - and particularly its Washington office - is well connected and possesses a real sense of the appropriate governmental forum that is best suited to solving problems. Litigation in the federal court system is one arena. The resolution of a client's problem might entail acting in the legislative forum, or it might involve dealing with the executive branch. Akin Gump has expertise in dealing with all branches of government, and this expertise benefits Akin Gump's clients.

Editor: You have spoken extensively on civil rights, employment discrimination, and wage and hour laws. What are the key issues in these areas at the moment?

Dreiband: Civil rights issues present us with the question of what we aspire to be as a nation. One of the most significant of these issues at the present moment concerns where to draw the line on what is appropriate, and what is inappropriate, in considering a person's race for purposes of, say, admission to university or with respect to a job opportunity. Our country benefits from its diversity. It is important, however, to avoid becoming so zealous in our commitment to equal opportunity that we treat people differently because of certain characteristics. That, I think, serves to compromise, not advance, the principles for which our nation stands. Getting this right is going to continue to be a challenge for us as a nation.

In the area of employment discrimination there are many challenges. On several issues the courts are divided, and I am hopeful that the Congress or the Supreme Court of the United States will clarify issues that are currently unclear. For example, there is considerable confusion over the proper standards for class action cases in the employment discrimination area. The effect of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 on race and sex discrimination class actions has divided the courts, and this division creates confusion. Most unsettling, the way in which class actions in employment discrimination cases have developed presents a danger to the rights of individual victims of discrimination and to employers. This confusion and uncertainty is not good for anyone.

In terms of developing law, many issues remain unresolved. The courts are divided, for example, on the effect of age discrimination prohibitions on various types of retirement and disability plans. The courts are also divided on disability cases that involve individual claims of reasonable accommodation by individuals who are regarded as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Gender stereotyping theories of discrimination have divided the federal courts, as have issues about transsexuals. The lower federal courts are addressing these matters but without much guidance from either Congress or the Supreme Court.

With respect to wage and hour laws, the biggest challenge facing employers involves compliance with the new regulations issued by the United States Department of Labor. The regulations define who qualifies for the overtime protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act and who is exempt. The new regulations are the first to address this issue in 50 years. I think we will continue to see a lot of litigation in this area.

Editor: What about the future? How do you see this practice evolving over the next few years?

Dreiband: Akin Gump will continue to handle the most complex and difficult types of cases in the labor and employment field. As part of Akin Gump's practice, I will deal with cases that raise equal employment opportunity, civil rights, and wage and hour issues, together with complex employment discrimination appellate matters. I see the next few years as a very exciting time to be at Akin Gump for me personally and for the practice group.

Published November 1, 2005.