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Spotlight on Carey Dunne (NY, ’87) and Kevin Trowel (NY, ’09)

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Founding Principal of Free + Fair Litigation Group and Principal of Free + Fair Litigation Group

In this joint spotlight, we are pleased to feature alumni Carey Dunne (NY ’87), Founding Principal of Free and Fair Litigation Group, and Kevin Trowel (NY ’09), Principal of Free and Fair Litigation Group.

Free and Fair Litigation Group is a pro bono law firm which selects cases based on their potential to create new case law that bolsters democracy. The firm is currently focusing on cases involving voting rights, gun control and free speech.

Read on to learn more about the work that Free and Fair Litigation Group is involved in as well as Carey’s and Kevin’s paths to public service work.

Carey, you were a part of Davis Polk’s white collar group from 1987 to 2016. Tell us about your time with the firm.

CD: When I finished law school, I didn’t have a long-term career plan, other than being interested in criminal law and public service, so I joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where I’d been a summer intern. I was a young trial assistant, which was a great experience. Several years later, in 1987, when I decided it was time to try out private practice, I interviewed at the only three firms that were handling any kind of “white collar criminal” cases, which was a new litigation focus for big firms in that era.

Davis Polk was the easy choice, because of its long tradition of public service. For decades, Davis Polk had encouraged lawyers at all levels to pursue opportunities in the public sector. I immediately began working with Bob Fiske, Jack Cooney and Scott Muller, all of whom had left and returned to Davis Polk after stints in government, in a practice that later led to the formation of what was one of the city’s first white collar criminal defense groups.

Kevin, you were a litigation associate with Davis Polk from 2009 to 2012. Do you have any memories from your time at the firm that you would like to share?

KT: I have very fond memories of my time at Davis Polk. I worked on a fascinating investigation with Scott Muller, Cathy O’Rourke and a group of other associates who started around the same time as me. I learned a ton and made some good friends to boot. Many of us from that team went on to work together at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York (EDNY) or elsewhere within the Department of Justice (DOJ)… and Sidney Bashago, now a counsel at the firm, and I got married!

“Don’t think that a position in private practice is a barrier to public service work. Stay alert for opportunities to participate in projects and pro bono cases that will satisfy your interests.”
     –    Carey Dunne
Carey, after Davis Polk, you returned to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. What prompted your move back to public service?

CD: When I first joined the firm, I always thought I’d go back to public service after a few years. As it happened, I stayed for three decades. There were two reasons for this: 1) it turned out that the work was fascinating and challenging, as no two cases or clients were ever the same, and 2) while at the firm I was presented with all kinds of opportunities to contribute beyond the paying cases, because the firm permitted and encouraged us to do so.

For example, I got involved with the New York City Bar Association, initially as the secretary of the Judiciary Committee (where Davis Polk partner Dan Kolb had become chair): a role that led to me becoming the Chair of that committee, and later the President of the City Bar. I was also extensively involved in pro bono matters, including not one but two murder trials, one of which led to the exoneration of a client who had been wrongly imprisoned for five years. I also led several interesting commissions for the New York State court system and was able to participate on a number of nonprofit boards. I also spent nine years on the firm’s three-person Management Committee.

I couldn’t have done any of this without the firm’s encouragement and support, and every assignment allowed me to involve great teams of Davis Polk colleagues.

However, after 30 years in private practice, I decided to again explore the possibility of working in the public sector. That led me in 2017 to join Cy Vance (a colleague of mine from government in the 1980s) as his General Counsel in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The job was to serve as a senior adviser on a variety of interesting cases (like the prosecution of Harvey Weinstein and the exoneration of those convicted of assassinating Malcolm X in 1965). Eventually, it included responsibility for the investigation of former President Donald Trump, in which I argued Trump v. Vance in the Supreme Court, which held that a sitting president does not have constitutional immunity from legal process, including a subpoena from a local prosecutor for his personal tax returns. Having obtained those documents, we then brought indictments against the Trump Organization and its Chief Financial Officer for tax fraud.

Kevin, after leaving Davis Polk in 2012, you worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the EDNY for 10 years. What prompted your move to public service?

KT: I clerked before coming to Davis Polk and those clerkships played an important role in my interest in public service, and specifically in working at the DOJ. The judges for whom I clerked at the District and Circuit Court levels both served as U.S. Attorneys, and both described being an Assistant U.S. Attorney as the best legal job around. Judge Raggi, in particular, was very supportive of my application, and she urged me to seek the kind of in-court experience that can be hard for junior lawyers to find outside of the DOJ. During my time in the EDNY, many of Judge Raggi’s former clerks came to work at the office, including some who had also worked at Davis Polk. Those overlapping networks have been invaluable over the years.

Tell us about your experience at the EDNY. Are there any cases that were particularly important to you that you can share with us?

KT: I had a fantastic experience at the EDNY. I spent time as a trial assistant in the Organized Crime and Gangs and Public Integrity sections, and then as a Deputy Chief of Appeals for my last few years in the office. Each trial and Circuit argument stands out in my memory for one reason or another, but in my appeals role, I was fortunate to work on some of the most interesting cases in the office. For example, I was part of the trial and appellate teams that prosecuted NXIVM/DOS cult leader Keith Raniere; I worked on the appeal following the first FIFA soccer corruption trial; and I helped convince the Second Circuit to reinstate the jury’s guilty verdict against Mark Nordlicht and David Levy, co-CIOs of the Platinum Partners hedge fund, after the district court erroneously granted their post-trial motions. Not long before I left, another Assistant U.S. Attorney and I secured the indictment of members of a violent Brooklyn-based gang that had escaped meaningful state-level prosecution for nearly a decade. These cases are all important to me for various reasons, not least because of the personal and professional relationships forged during those experiences.

How has your experience at Davis Polk been useful to your career?

KT: My time at Davis Polk has been extremely helpful in my career. The skills I learned at Davis Polk are incredibly useful for a federal prosecutor and, as a result, I was one of many for whom Davis Polk was a launching pad to a role at the DOJ. When I was at Davis Polk, there were so many DOJ boosters at the firm – Bob Fiske, Scott Muller and Greg Andres, to name just a few – and when I started at the EDNY, it felt like Davis Polk South, because there were so many former Davis Polk associates there. Now, it seems, I cross paths with current or former Davis Polk employees on a near-daily basis. I find that having a stint at Davis Polk on my resume brings instant credibility and a built-in network of outstanding lawyers in every sector of the legal world.

“It was an easy decision to join Free and Fair Litigation Group! I believe deeply in its mission, and the issues we’re working on are among the most challenging and interesting around.”
     –    Kevin Trowel
Carey, how did you decide to found the Free and Fair Litigation Group?

CD: After I left the District Attorney’s office in early 2022, I felt that the biggest legal challenge facing our country was the developing authoritarianism that’s eroding constitutional and other rights we’ve taken for granted for generations. With that in mind, I decided to form Free and Fair Litigation Group, a small nonprofit law firm that provides senior leadership in “social impact” cases that protect legal principles that are central to our democracy. We do all our work for free, and our Founding Principals take no compensation. We’re a 501(c)-3 charitable organization, with a new strong legal team (including Kevin here), and now have a number of constitutional cases in development.

Importantly, our model is to partner with pro bono teams at for-profit firms. To this end, in addition to other firms, we’re working actively with two different teams at Davis Polk on two matters: a Second Amendment case defending four Colorado towns against a challenge to their assault weapons bans (a team led by Tony Perez and Jim Windels), and a First Amendment case challenging censorship in schools (a team led by Frances Bivens). It’s great to be able to continue to work with friends and former colleagues at Davis Polk.

What is your vision for the Free and Fair Litigation Group?

CD: I’m afraid that the importance of the work is only going to increase in the coming years, so hopefully our ability to help will grow and continue as we get further established. I’m also optimistic that our model will encourage other senior litigators around the country who are thinking about their “next act” to realize they can play important roles in public service after their tenures in the private sector.

Kevin, why did you decide to join the Free and Fair Litigation Group?

KT: It was an easy decision to join Free and Fair Litigation Group! I believe deeply in its mission, and the issues we’re working on are among the most challenging and interesting around. It’s a privilege to work alongside Carey and fellow Founding Principals Mark Pomerantz and Michele Roberts, and it’s a professional experience that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Tell us about your work at the Free and Fair Litigation Group. What issues are particularly important to you?

KT: The work has been fascinating and rewarding. Day to day, I have been working with the Davis Polk team on our defensive Second Amendment litigation in Colorado to prepare expert reports, discovery requests and so on. We’ve also been preparing several affirmative cases, and for those I have been working with our partners – including Davis Polk – to do legal and factual research on a variety of issues. One issue involves the many hopelessly vague laws enacted across the country that purport to limit the ways teachers can discuss race. Another issue involves efforts by so-called “election police” to intimidate voters with prior felony convictions, in violation of the Voting Rights Act, after those individuals were re-enfranchised by a state constitutional amendment.

What advice would you give to lawyers who are interested in public service?

KT: I think serving as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and as a prosecutor generally, is one of the most valuable public services a lawyer can provide. It also happens to be one of the best legal jobs around and unparalleled training for whatever comes after. Many of my colleagues at the EDNY have continued to serve the public in various capacities after leaving the office, and I wouldn’t be at Free and Fair Litigation Group if it weren’t for my time at the EDNY.

CD: Don’t feel you need to have a master plan for your career. Do what feels right at the time, and see what opportunities present themselves unexpectedly. You never know what will come along through your contacts at work, from school or wherever. Stay in touch with your peers and mentors and keep an open mind.

Also, don’t think that a position in private practice is a barrier to public service work. Stay alert for opportunities to participate in projects and pro bono cases that will satisfy your interests. Let others know of your ambitions and availability, and get involved in organizations outside of the firm. Yes, you’re busy, but it’s important to make the time.

Finally, once an opportunity comes up, even unexpectedly, pursue it, even if it doesn’t seem like a logical next step. You never know where it might lead. Life is too short not to take a chance on what you find interesting.