Willett Public Affairs
Rye Brook, New York
Past positions include: Senior Vice President & Counsel, State & Broadway
BA SUNY Binghamton
Law to lobbying a natural transition
On the job of lobbying
On questions to ask if you should become a lawyer or stay a lawyer
How to get a job in government relations
Listen to interview:
ex judicata: If you could give us a capsule sketch on your company Willett Public Affairs and your role as president.
Perry Ochacher: I formed Willett Public Affairs in 2019 after a career practicing law and doing government relations/lobbying work both in-house for corporations and for other lobbying firms. I presently represent clients on the state and local level on government relations matters, legislative and regulatory. I don’t do any work on the federal level. I’m also of counsel to a small law firm.
I do have my toe in the legal world a little bit. Just I don’t know if that disqualifies me for ex judicata.
ex judicata: No, because I’m guessing it is a very small percentage of your work?
PO: Yes, like 5%. I use it primarily as a vehicle to refer clients that have legal matters to a friend of mine who practices and I’m able to share in the fees. But again, it’s maybe 5% percent of my income and time devoted to it.
ex judicata: Did you know early on, Perry, that you wanted to be an attorney? I see you were a political science and government major in college. Two areas that are good background for being an attorney and/or if one wants to go into public affairs. What was your plan when you were starting out?
PO: I wanted to be a lawyer. Ever since I was a young kid, even before I really knew what it was all about. Watching TV shows that romanticized the practice of law made it appealing to me. I wanted to do that, not really knowing what it was all about at a young age. And I also thought I had the skill set for it. I was always more liberal arts oriented, less math and science. More social sciences using writing and verbal skills. I just always inclined more toward writing, research, public speaking, and things of that nature. Just thought I had the qualities that would make a good lawyer. I didn’t really know, of course, anything about the day-to-day practice of law.
I remember when I was in high school, over the holiday season, I printed some resumes and I got the names of the top 10 or 15 law firms in Midtown. And I remember going around to see if there were part-time jobs over the holiday season.
ex judicata: Wow, you really wanted to be a lawyer!
PO: Yes, I was anxious to work in a law firm and see what it was all about. I was walking into some of these firms that were really institutions. But, again at the time I had no idea who they really were like Finley, Kumble for example.
ex judicata: A quick note for some of our younger readers. Finley, Kumble was a high-flying law firm that went bankrupt in a big way in 1987 with debt of over $120 million. At the time, it was the 4th largest law firm in the US with 700 attorneys. It was famous for doing away with lockstep, what was still called ‘the Cravath system’ at the time, in favor of paying partners based on how much business they brought it. They also were the first large firm with the strategy of poaching rainmakers from other firms and paying them exorbitant salaries. Strategies which are of course common today. The pay reached ridiculous extremes, infighting ensued and the firm collapsed. It was the
subject of books and some wonderful articles in The American Lawyer. It’s funny after all these years the thing I most remember is one partner was famous for having toupees of various lengths to give people the impression he had hair that was growing. You can’t make this up. But I digress.
PO: So, I remember walking into a bunch of other Park Avenue firms handing out my resume and trying to see if they would hire a high school kid for the summer, just as an intern. So, the interest was there at a very early age, and I thought I had the right skill set.
ex judicata: I keep wanting to refer to you as a ‘lobbyist’, but I wonder if that’s the right term because it’s so often bandied about on tv and in the movies in connection with some nefarious organization trying to buy influence.
PO: It’s interesting, public affairs might have a nicer ring to it, but I’m not offended by the term lobbyist. I take some amusement at where the term comes from. I think some people know, but maybe it’s not common knowledge. It originated as a term during the Lincoln administration during the Civil War. Folks attempting to sell products, services, armaments etc. to the government would literally line up in the lobbies outside of Congress and the White House, trying to get the ear of politicians. It’s an interesting origin of the name and it’s actually very true. That’s a large part of what I do physically. I’m at the Capitol in Albany in the various lobbies waiting to buttonhole a legislator. It does have a slightly negative connotation, but it doesn’t offend me. I guess public affairs has a nicer ring to it.
ex judicata: That’s a better ring.
PO: But I will often refer to myself as a lobbyist. Public affairs actually is a broader term which encompasses not just lobbying, but could also include communications, grassroots and social media in today’s day and age.
ex judicata: So, public affairs while a much broader term doesn’t necessarily imply specifically government relations work?
PO: Yes, so lobbying is a little bit more of an accurate description of what I do day-to-day.
Exj: When you first got out of school you were working in a law firm environment, right? What were the things you liked and what didn’t you like during those first experiences? Was it a large firm that you went to or a small firm? Summer associate or first full-time job?
PO: Well, both, I guess.
To go back before I went to law school, I was a paralegal at Skadden for a year. I had deferred law school for a year and was looking for a job. And being the ‘creative, outside the box thinker’ I was, I went and worked for a law firm. Now, looking back there’s like 138 other things I could have, should have done that year. But I guess it goes to my dedication. At the time I really thought that law would be my chosen career path. And even though I deferred law school, I wanted to work for a law firm. So, I was at Skadden and in short order it absolutely made me question what I was doing and whether in fact I wanted to work for a law firm because I couldn’t believe what I saw.
I just didn’t know people worked like that. I grew up, my dad owned a relatively small business manufacturing clothing. You know, he was home basically by six and didn’t work weekends. I knew lawyers worked hard, but until I was at Skadden I had no idea what the practice of law was like in a major city at a major firm. And it really did turn me off. I found myself saying ‘is this really the kind of life that you want to lead?’ I mean, yes, there were interesting people, smart people working on interesting cases in the aggregate. Though once you drilled down, a lot of the actual corporate work was very tedious. So, again I started thinking what are you getting yourself into here? Is this really the life you want to live?’
ex judicata: So, what was it really, the Big Law trinity? Hours, the personalities, the work.
PO: It was the hours. It was the type of work. In law school, I remember my property professor the first week of law school saying the actual practice of law is like reading the warranty on your toaster oven over and over again. And I
think that’s such a great description in many respects of what the practice of law can be like. So, I think it was the tedious nature of document production and the kind of due diligence stuff that I was doing coupled with the insane hours. Granted partners there we’re making great incomes, but it really did make me question, if not the law as a career, certainly working in a big firm.
ex judicata: I know exactly what you’re talking about. I took a year off between college and law school. And one of the many jobs that I had was doing proofreading at Shearman back in the days when they had real people double-checking and proofing all documents.
PO: I remember that.
ex judicata: I think my shift was like 6:00 pm to 2 a.m. and just seeing how many people were still there. That is, how many lawyers young and old were keeping insane hours. It caused me to question everything. Not just about law but about life.
PO: I remember Skadden’s word processing department, which I think when I was there, had like 25-30 people just sitting in front of terminals, banging out documents, proofreading documents. And the contrast between the lawyers working in the firm, wow. This was the 80’s and the lawyers had the suspenders, the Brooks Brother’s suits.
ex judicata: Yes, back when ‘Brooks Brothers’ was Brooks Brothers.
PO: Yes. And the folks that were working the overnight shift in word processing were probably coming up from the village or Soho, the actors and actresses looking to make some extra income, walking in with their pink hair and Doc Martens and combat pants.
ex judicata: And, as you said this was the 80’s and back then pink hair and Doc Martens were not a thing at all. It was truly the fringe and the lawyers I was working for looked at them like they were from another planet.
PO: Yes, so you had these two worlds crashing into each other. The young lawyers and the paralegals coming in with their documents and discs and it was a really an interesting contrast. In a certain respect it was good to see it, how the business of law was being done. But as a as a career path, I really did at that point start thinking, you know, there could be a better way than this.
ex judicata: And so, you go to law school, practice law in a firm for a while, and then you make a move in-house to Cablevision. Was that through a recruiter? Were you looking to move out of the practice of law altogether or was that the law department at Cablevision?
PO: Cablevision was government relations. I had been working as a lobbyist prior to that at law firms not really practicing law. I did get that position through a headhunter that was recommended to me. I was doing lobbying work. I was getting married, and I just needed something a little bit more stable. And the Cablevision position opened, and it sounded on paper like a very good opportunity.
When I first graduated from law school, I was an associate at a mid-size firm in Midtown. I had an offer from White & Case which I turned down. So, I didn’t go to Cablevision immediately after that mid-size firm. There was like a maybe 8-year period when I was doing both lobbying and law practice. Sometimes simultaneously. But the year immediately prior to Cablevision, I was doing only lobbying work not
practicing law. I sometimes wonder if I’d accepted the offer from White & Case what my life would have been like. Would I have still been at White & Case? Obviously, they’re still around and thriving. And the mid-size firm I was with imploded. That kind of propelled me on this path of doing other things and thinking about something other than the practice of law.
ex judicata: Well, it sounds like, just based on your experience at Skadden, that if you had chosen White & Case you would not have been happy. BigLaw wasn’t for you.
PO: I think so.
ex judicata: A lot of our readers are facing similar decisions. Whether to go to BigLaw in some cases and in other cases whether to stay in BigLaw. Yeah. It’s basically the same 3 concerns: the drudgery of the work, the hours and, in too many cases, the personalities. On that last one the pandemic made things even more confusing. Remote work. So, on the one hand, you didn’t have that fear of a partner walking by your office, dropping something on you and you didn’t have to carefully craft answers to obscure questions sprung on you. But, on the other hand these same feared partners just laid on even more work figuring since you’re home what else are you going to be doing. Hopefully, with interviews like this we are helping in the decision-making process.
PO: I think you are. If I’m speaking to young people about practicing law, I tell them two things: One, I relay to them my professor’s comments about the toaster warranty and explain this is in many respects an accurate description of the work. And then the second thing is the money. So, it’s got to be ‘yes’ to at least one of these things—are they are okay with the work? Or are they doing it for the money?
If the answer is no to both of those things, it’s an incredibly tough way to live. And I think it’s why so many lawyers are unhappy because it is so demanding.
ex judicata: Switching gears, how do you think your law school background, your law school training prepared you for your success as a lobbyist and success in business in general?
PO: Definitely a direct link to good research skills, good writing and advocacy. Although as you know, in law school, unless you take some sort of an internship or clinical program, you don’t get to do much that really prepares you for the actual practice of law. But there were opportunities at Georgetown Law School and certainly opportunities for public speaking, but that sharpening of research skills, sharpening of writing skills, all were qualities that serve me well as a lobbyist. So, I think the qualities that make someone a good lawyer are also the qualities that make someone a good lobbyist.
What I do as a lobbyist, you could describe often as quasi legal in nature. I’m looking at legislation on behalf of clients analyzing it, sometimes drafting legislation. In law school I took courses on the legislative process and legislation, so there was a direct link s that’s still a benefit. I have a small shop. I’m my own General Counsel. You know, a week ago I drafted an agreement. I’m in negotiation with an older fellow who’s thinking of retiring and I’m thinking about possibly taking over his practice. I was able to draft the acquisition agreement. So, if I didn’t have my legal background, I would have had to ship that out to a lawyer.
ex judicata: Do you think it helped you to think a certain way?
ex judicata: Yes. Absolutely. An analytical way of thinking, structuring an argument. And it’s actually a very interesting question because often when I’m advocating for my lobbying clients now, I will begin with the conclusion. I’ll tell a policymaker, here’s where we want to end up. Now, let me explain to you how we can l get there. What’s the justification we’re asking for in the introduction of this legislation or in trying to pass this legislation? Advocacy – the same thing you were trained in law school. When you’re reading a case, the first thing the case usually offers in the opinion is the holding, the conclusion of the court. And then comes all the justification and the support. And I think that way now.
ex judicata: And that thinking also translates into writing ability.
PO: I would say in law school you’re taught to be concise, to get to the point, and that’s something I’m very much aware of now when I’m drafting anything on behalf of a client. If I know it’s going to be in front of a legislator or a staff person, I know they’re looking at tons of memos, tons of material that’s being presented by any number of parties. I always thought I was a good writer, but there’s no question that being in law school helped sharpen my writing skills. And that also helps in my lobbying advocacy when I’m producing written materials to help support my lobbying efforts.
ex judicata: If someone is, let’s say, a young associate in a law firm and they’re thinking about lobbying or public affairs as a career what’s the easiest way to get that first job? What advice might you give them? Would it be to see if they can move to the lobbying group, assuming their firm has one? Or is that too much like the practice of law if you’re still under the same roof?
PO: The answer is if you’re working for a law firm that has a lobbying division and quite a few firms in New York do, and some of the larger firms have large public affairs divisions, which is one route. And, most often, you are not really practicing law if you belong to one of those groups. So, that’s one way
But this route is not as easy as you think because that’s trying to change practice areas. It’s like you’re going from corporate to litigation. One looking at this from the outside might think it’s as simple as just telling your firm you want to make that move. But the litigators would look at you like you don’t know anything about the practice of litigation, and you don’t. So, I think that you’d have this similar reaction in trying to move to the lobbying group unless you are starting at a very junior level. There might be an opportunity, but it’s not the ideal way to enter the lobbying field.
The best way to enter the lobbying world is transitioning to the political process in some manner. One way is to get involved in a political campaign. You work as a staff person. Another way is to try to get a staff position in a legislature.
City Councils, State Legislatures, the United States Congress. It’s irreplaceable and will make you very desirable within a couple of years to any number of organizations be they lobbying shops, trade associations or law firms with lobbying groups where you’re not practicing law. That’s the way I did it.
The other indirect path I just mentioned, getting involved in a campaign, can work as well. Developing a relationship with a particular elected official can lead to a staff position with that person’s office. But even if it doesn’t, the nature of your relationship with the elected official, if it’s a high enough level of office, could propel you on a lobbying path. There are people who would then hire you for access to that official. But the best and more realistic route is still to work as a staffer in a legislature. If somebody wants to make the transition from the practice of law to government affairs, I’d say take that interim step of really learning the legislative process of some political entity – City Council, State Legislature or the US Congress – would l open up tremendous opportunities for you to pursue a career path in government relations.
ex judicata: So, for those people who during law school realize that they don’t want to practice law, I mean come to a well-reasoned conclusion, it sounds like it makes the most sense to not go for a regular summer associate type position. Rather, to do what you’re suggesting. See if they can work in a legislature, or even a political campaign if the potential officeholder is high enough. And pick it up directly after graduation from law school.
PO: Yes, but as you said it must be a well-reasoned conclusion that they don’t want to practice law. Because if you don’t go to a law firm, you’re making it a lot more difficult should you want to try practicing law later.
To go back to another point, I think a lot of younger lawyers may feel ‘ there’s such a close relationship between practicing law and the legislative process that it’s almost natural to be able to transition between the two. You tell yourself, ‘If I go to a law firm, I’m kind of already doing lobbying work. I’m doing things that are the result of laws that have been passed, no?’ Well, not really.
There’s a big difference between the practice of law and a career related to the legislative process and being a lobbyist. I think if someone knows for a fact, they don’t want to practice law and want a public policy job the best path after law school is becoming a staffer to a legislative body. And, if you decide you really don’t want to be a policy person you are still well positioned to be legal counsel to a committee. That’s an option as well.
PO: One other thing to emphasize for those who want to transition out of the practice of law is that as a trained lawyer you have much more than just legal skills. Many of your legal skills are transferable to non-legal positions. If you tap into and promote those skills, there are many opportunities for you. You don’t have to think so linear, like, ‘l, I’m a lawyer, I’m trained as a lawyer, all I can really do is another legal job, another in-house counsel job’. The skills you have–writing, advocacy, analysis, persuasion, whatever those legal skills may be, really are transferable into a lot of non-legal positions.
ex judicata: Well, they certainly would be welcome here at ex judicata. They’d be part of the revolution. Our mission, as you know, is to get heads of HR at big companies, mid-market companies, small companies, startups, banks and not-for-profits to see the JD degree as a foundation for work in everything from marketing to risk management to M&A in the business development department of an organization.
For instance, we were speaking with someone a couple of days ago who practiced for like a year in a law firm and then went to Proctor & Gamble as an Assistant Brand
Manager on the Tide account. He had zero experience in marketing. He had no experience in brand management. But P&G was happy to have him because he knew how to think strategically, write well, issue spot and was well spoken. It worked out great for this transitioning attorney.
ex judicata: Thanks, Perry. I greatly appreciate your taking the time