Lifetime Achiever: Walter Dellinger
Yale Law School rejected Walter Dellinger III when he first applied in 1963. Luckily for Dellinger, a senior at the University of North Carolina at the time, a state government official for whom he'd interned arranged an in-person interview for him to make his case. Dellinger had no money, so he hitchhiked to New Haven. Several detours and one terrifying drunk driver later, Dellinger arrived for his interview 15 minutes late. The admissions officer wasn't pleased. But after recounting every detail of his wild trek, Dellinger was able to win him over and secure his spot.
In the years that followed, Dellinger's knack for creatively pleading his case didn't go unnoticed. As a law professor at Duke University during the 1970s and 1980s, Democratic Party leaders repeatedly asked him to testify before Congress in favor of liberal causes. "They really needed a Southerner on their side," he says.
When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he tapped Dellinger to helm the Office of Legal Counsel. That led to a 14-month stint as U.S. solicitor general beginning in 1996. Not long after, O'Melveny & Myers asked him to lead the firm's appellate practice. Dellinger has been at the firm ever since, winning dozens of high-profile cases for a range of pro bono and paying clients.
In June he helped convince the U.S. Supreme Court that proponents of Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage, did not have standing to appeal a court order invalidating it. That ruling, Hollingsworth v. Perry, cleared the way for gay marriage in California. The winning "standing" argument was first devised by Dellinger in a piece he wrote for Slate.com, which he later morphed into an amicus brief.
Throughout his career, Dellinger has also mentored younger lawyers and entrusted them with unusual amounts of responsibility. One of those protégés, Sri Srinivasan, was recently appointed to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and is often discussed as a future Supreme Court nominee. "I think Walter was happier about Sri's appointment than he ever was about his own successes," says former O'Melveny partner Irv Gornstein.
Dellinger says he knows the importance of mentoring firsthand. He credits his love of writing to a tenth-grade teacher who bought him a two-year subscription to The Economist out of her own pocket. It wasn't until many years later that he realized what an unusual, and expensive, gift that was, he says. "Sometimes you can see a future for other people that's even better than what they see for themselves," Dellinger says.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
What is your biggest professional accomplishment?
The single thing I'm most proud of is having run the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department for nearly four years without having any serious regrets about the decisions we made. Telling the White House no is never easy, but we did it every time we thought the law made "no" the right answer.
What is your greatest personal accomplishment?
Persuading Anne Maxwell to marry me.
What you would have done differently or what is your biggest regret?
I will always regret failing to come up with a winning argument in Martha Stewart v. United States. I thought her conviction was unfair and that justice would have been served if it had been reversed. But I just couldn't come up with an argument that convinced the appellate court to rule in her favor.
What book has influenced you the most?
Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills (nonfiction) and Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Marquéz (fiction). How about this for an opening line "On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on."
Portrait photography by Michael J.N. Bowles.