Susan Davies, '91: White House Veteran Makes Her Mark in Private Practice

Appeared in Record issue: 
Spring 2014

Before Susan Davies, ’91, joined the Washington, DC, office of Kirkland & Ellis in 2011, she was deputy White House counsel, responsible for judicial selection. In addition to vetting potential judicial nominees and making recommendations to President Obama, she managed the Supreme Court confirmation processes of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. She was also considered the resident expert on intellectual property law in the counsel’s office, which she joined at the beginning of the president’s first term.

Her background qualified her well for both of her White House roles. Right out of law school, she clerked for Stephen Breyer when he was a Court of Appeals judge, and later she clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy. President Clinton brought her into his White House in 1994, as special counsel for judicial selection, where among other things she helped prepare Judge Breyer to become confirmed as Justice Breyer. On

the intellectual property front, she worked on the Microsoft antitrust case in an early Justice Department job and later served for eight years at the Senate Judiciary Committee, first as chief intellectual property counsel and then as general counsel. She contributed extensively to the drafting of the America Invents Act, which was the first major restructuring of patent law in more than fifty years, and she worked on many copyright law issues as well.

In addition to her partnership responsibilities at Kirkland & Ellis, where she focuses primarily on intellectual property, antitrust, and government investigation issues, she began teaching a required first­year course, Legislation and Regulation, at Harvard Law School in 2012, and added a seminar on statutory interpretation to her teaching duties this year. “People often think that with a career like mine, teaching must have been on my agenda,” she says, “but it hadn’t been a goal for me because I have a lifelong, sometimes crippling, fear of public speaking. It’s getting better for me—I told a faculty colleague at the beginning of my first term that my only aspiration was not to die, and I’m not as worried about that now as I was then—but it’s still a challenge.”

She’s also actively pursuing a substantial pro bono caseload at Kirkland & Ellis, directing her attention principally to cases that involve voting rights, and she continues her involvement as a contributing editor of The Green Bag, the law journal cofounded and edited by her brother, Ross Davies, ’97.

Her enthusiasm for the education she received at the Law School is unstinting. “When I was considering law schools, I was strongly attracted to Chicago for its rigor,” she says. “It seemed like an intense place: no fluff, all muscle and bone. When I got there, it was all that—and so much more. You might choose an institution, but what you get are individuals, and the Law School’s faculty was made up of individuals who were brilliant and who taught brilliantly, and who also cared and cared deeply.”

“During my first quarter, I was convinced that I wasn’t going to be able to cut it,” she recalls. “I was trying with all my might, but getting nowhere. I went to see Cass Sunstein, all sniffles and hiccups. I don’t remember specifically what he said—all I know is that he calmed me down, reassured me, and extracted a promise from me to stick it out until the new year. I doubt that there’s anywhere else where this would have happened. I owe my career—my professional self, really—to the Law School.”

Her personal self resides happily in DC with her husband, John Van Voorhis, who teaches junior kindergarten in Washington’s Anacostia district and whom she describes as “awesome and heroic,” and their two children, Rachel and Richard, who she describes as “hilarious and wonderful.” “Life is grand,” she says. “Thank you, Chicago.”