McGuireWoods Chairman ‘a straight shooter’

June 22, 2009

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By: Michael Martz


Richard Cullen was a lawyer with an eye on political office.

The campaign committee was formed, and the fundraising trips had begun across Virginia. Cullen hoped to succeed Jim Gilmore as attorney general.

And he did, but not by running for office.

Instead, Cullen stepped aside early in the race for the Republican nomination in 1997, setting the stage for state Sen. Mark L. Earley to enter and, ultimately, win the office. But Cullen did serve as attorney general for about six months that year between Gilmore’s resignation to run for governor and Earley’s inauguration.

And then Cullen went back to being a lawyer at McGuireWoods, the second-largest law firm in Virginia.

“It was a turning point in my life,” he recalled recently. “I decided I didn’t want to do politics. I ended up being chairman of the firm” in 2006.

Cullen, 61, a former U.S. attorney and litigator, used his new focus to make McGuireWoods a big player in national white-collar-crime litigation involving some of the biggest names in finance and politics — Boeing Inc., Time-Warner, ITT Corp. and then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, all of them under federal investigation then.

“He moved more to a counseling role to big corporations that had issues with the federal government,” said Thomas F. Farrell II, chairman, president and CEO of Dominion Resources Inc. as well as a former lawyer at McGuireWoods.

Farrell knows Cullen as well as anyone in Richmond. After all, they are related by marriage to sisters who grew up with Cullen in Staunton, his adopted home after his family moved there from Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was about 5.

“He’s probably my best friend,” Cullen said of his brother-in-law.

Ironically, Farrell worked for McGuireWoods’ biggest competitor, Hunton & Williams, when he met and married his wife, Anne Garland. Her sister, Aggie, was already married to Cullen.

Family is a big deal for Cullen, whose father, Walter I. Cullen Jr., died just before Memorial Day last month at age 91. The time spent away from family ultimately prompted Cullen to end his brief campaign for political office. “I just did not like the daily grind,” he said.

Now, his four children are well-established with their own lives, and Cullen is chairman of the firm, having succeeded longtime power broker Robert L. Burrus Jr. in late 2006. McGuireWoods now employs nearly 900 lawyers in 18 offices, including one that opened this year in London.

Cullen’s standing is high in Richmond’s legal community, where he is known for strategic thinking, shrewd judgment and honesty.

“He’s a straight shooter,” said Everette G. “Buddy” Allen Jr., a partner at LeClair Ryan and an occasional legal adversary of Cullen.

James C. Roberts, a partner atTroutman Sanders and a practicing attorney for more than 50 years, said, “If there is any lawyer you would take at his word, certainly Richard would be in that category.”

Still, politics hasn’t gone away as an abiding passion for Cullen, who grew up in the “mountain-valley” tradition of the Virginia Republican Party. It’s a moderate tradition that includes many of his greatest mentors — former U.S. Rep. M. Caldwell Butler, the late Gov. John N. Dalton and former state Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman.

“He’s in that sensible core of Republicans that want to see the party moderate and become relevant again,” said Larry J. Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia.

Sabato sees Cullen as a major player where it counts in politics — business. “He’s highly influential in both politics and business,” Sabato said, “which is a powerful combination.”

. . .

Almost two years ago, Cullen was among 26 business and civic leaders in the Richmond area who signed a letter calling for fundamental changes in the city’s school system, including a return to appointing School Board members instead of electing them.

The effort was led by Farrell.

Allen said he was asked to sign the letter but declined. “I just said I think you guys are off on the wrong foot,” Allen said recently.

The letter ignited a firestorm in a city where the notion of taking away the vote ran squarely into the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that gave ballot power to blacks who had been thwarted from voting in many places in the South.

The idea outlined in the letter went nowhere, but Cullen and other signers say their purpose was to draw attention to the larger problems in Richmond’s schools.

“I think it got people thinking we’ve got to improve our education,” Cullen said.

The Aug. 3, 2007, letter also drew public attention to the close political ties that Cullen and some other signatories had with then-Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, who was engaged in a series of public confrontations with members of the School Board and the City Council.

Wilder attempted to evict the School Board and administration from their City Hall offices, only to be reversed by a circuit judge who also blocked a separate attempt by the mayor to threaten the removal of staff for the City Council and council-appointed positions.

McGuireWoods represented Wilder in both lawsuits, as well as an earlier suit by the School Board that a judge dismissed over whether the city could withhold funding from the school system. Cullen represented Wilder personally in the suit over school funding but deferred to other lawyers at the firm in the other two lawsuits. Cullen never appeared in court in the eviction case.

Wilder appealed both lower-court rulings, but Mayor Dwight C. Jones dropped the appeals after taking office in January.

“My regret is that we did not get to see what the Supreme Court would have said,” Cullen said.

Allen, who represented the City Council in the employee-hiring and school-eviction cases, thinks Cullen never had the chance to effectively counsel Wilder before the mayor acted. “I think Richard would hear about it about the same time as I did — reading about it in the paper,” Allen said.

Cullen won’t talk about conversations with a client, but he laughed off the suggestions. “It’s been a fun relationship with [Wilder].”

Their relationship dated to the early 1990s, when Cullen was a Republican U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and Wilder was the Democratic governor.

They cooperated on bipartisan legislation to restrict handgun purchases to no more than one a month for any person. The joint effort riled some people in Cullen’s party — “I thought [then-Minority Leader] Vance Wilkins was going to decapitate me,” Cullen recalled.

But the law also drew widespread national praise and cemented a friendship that has endured. “They’ve very good, close allies,” Farrell said.

The gun legislation also highlighted Cullen’s politics, which he describes as right of center but ultimately pragmatic. “I like to look for solid, practical answers,” he said.

. . .

Cullen has seen political history up close.

He worked for Butler when the Virginia congressman became the first Southern Republican to call for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon.

He worked for U.S. Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. when Trible publicly questioned Lt. Col. Oliver L. North during hearings on the Iran-Contra affair in late 1980s.

President George H.W. Bush appointed Cullen in 1991 as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia at the recommendation of longtime Sen. John W. Warner.

Cullen cares just as much about leading the search for a new president at his alma mater, Furman University in South Carolina, from which his sons also graduated.

He also is serious about expanding McGuireWoods in such cities as London and Charlotte, N.C., where there are big clients or big opportunities.

McGuireWoods merged more than a year ago with Charlotte firm Helms Mulliss & Wicker, to quadruple the number of lawyers it has in a city where Bank of America, one of its big clients, is based.

Recently, Cullen took time out of his busy schedule to visit the firm’s Charlotte office and talk to a group of eight law students working there this summer. His message had nothing to do with politics or power.

“I told them what a very satisfying profession the practice of law is,” he said. “The most satisfying part has been relationships with clients and helping them solve their problems, especially in hard times.

“I wouldn’t have traded my time at McGuireWoods for anything.”

Contact Michael Martz at (804) 649-6964 or .