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May 18, 2011 1:58 PM

DOJ, FCC Tap Skadden and Wilson Sonsini Partners for Major Posts

Posted by Brian Baxter

The Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission have hired partners from two top Am Law 100 firms to head up two significant initiatives.

The Justice Department announced on Wednesday that Sheila Birnbaum, head of the mass torts and insurance litigation group at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, will serve as the new special master for the September 11th victim compensation fund.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., said that he chose Birnbaum, a lifelong New Yorker, because of her extensive experience in resolving complex litigation. Specificially, Holder cited Birnbaum's role in mediating a $500 million settlement between airlines and airport security companies and 92 families of those killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"[Birnbaum] has worked closely with, and won the trust of, the families of 9/11 victims with whom she worked," Holder said in a statement. "I know that under her direction, the fund will be administered in a manner that is sensitive and fair to those who have suffered so much from the September 11th attacks."

As we've previously reported, Skadden and Birnbaum have received high praise for their work in the 9/11 cases. Birnbaum wrapped up her work in March 2009 when a federal judge in Manhattan accepted her final report on plaintiffs who opted out of the original 9/11 victims compensation fund administered by special master Kenneth Feinberg of Feinberg Rozen.

Earlier this year President Barack Obama signed into law the James Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act, a bill named after a former New York Police Department detective that reopened the 9/11 fund. Zadroga, who took part in the rescue efforts at Ground Zero in Manhattan, later developed a breathing condition and died in 2006. Birnbaum will now administer the $2.8 billion fund created by the Zadroga bill.

"Ken Feinberg laid a great foundation during the fund's first iteration, and I plan to build on it," Birnbaum said in a statement. (The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have more on Birnbaum's hire.)

A Justice Department spokeswoman says that Birnbaum declined to be paid for her work administering the fund. In a statement to The Am Law Daily, Skadden said that "we look forward to our continuing partnership with Sheila and are in the process of working with the government to implement appropriate ethical safeguards."

In an unrelated matter involving a federal agency reaching into the Am Law 100 ranks, the FCC has hired Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati antitrust partner Renata Hesse in Washington, D.C., to help oversee its review of AT&T's proposed $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA announced earlier this year.

Both the Justice Department and FCC are currently reviewing the mammoth telecommunications deal, which would vault a newly combined entity past Verizon Wireless into position as the largest wireless carrier in the U.S. Hesse will serve as special counsel to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, a former Harvard Law School classmate of President Obama.

"Renata's wealth of legal expertise and experience is a welcome addition to the review team, and I am thrilled that she will soon be joining us," Genachowski said in a statement. "Her leadership will help ensure that our review of this important transaction is fair, thorough, and efficient."

Hesse previously advised longtime Wilson Sonsini client Google on its ill-fated advertising agreement with rival Yahoo! amid a review by the Justice Department and Hogan Lovells partner Sanford "Sandy" Litvack. The Justice Department hired Litvack to represent the government in a possible challenge to the revenue-sharing deal, which collapsed in the face of regulatory opposition.

Hesse, who joined Wilson Sonsini five years ago, previously worked for the Justice Department's antitrust division. While there, she was part of a team that closely scrutinized Oracle's ultimately successful $10.3 billion acquisition of PeopleSoft in 2004.

As previously reported by The Am Law Daily, Sullivan & Cromwell is serving as deal counsel to AT&T, while T-Mobile USA's owner, Deutsche Telekom, has turned to Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Deutsche Telekom is receiving antitrust counsel from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and FCC counsel from Wiley Rein. Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr is serving as FCC counsel to AT&T, while Arnold & Porter and Crowell & Moring are providing antitrust advice to the company.

One of the biggest objectors to AT&T's proposed purchase of T-Mobile USA is wireless rival Sprint Nextel, which has hired Skadden as antitrust counsel and tapped Washington, D.C.'s Lawler, Metzger, Keeney & Logan for FCC advice. (Sprint CEO Daniel Hesse is not related to Renata Hesse.)

Last year the FCC hired John Flynn, former general counsel of ICO Global Communications, to oversee its review of a proposed $30 billion merger between Comcast and NBC Universal. The Justice Department and the FCC approved the merger earlier this year.

As in Flynn's case, Hesse's appointment by the FCC will require her to leave her current employer.

"In order to take this position with the FCC, Renata is required to resign as a partner in the firm," Wilson Sonsini spokeswoman Courtney Dorman tells The Am Law Daily. "While a loss for us, this is an incredible achievement for Renata and speaks to her experience and reputation as one of the nation's top antitrust attorneys."

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