Biglaw Firm Chooses Associate Over Elon Musk

Elon Musk

Elon Musk (Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW)

Elon Musk is a very rich man with a very big platform. And he frequently uses both of those things to aggressively demand that folks do exactly what he wants them to do.

Like remember back in season 1 of the pandemic when he was salty that Alameda County shut down the Tesla plant located there to stop the spread of COVID. He kept the plant open in defiance of local rules, sued the county and eventually — in a move that I am sure is COMPLETELY COINCIDENTAL — the county allowed the plant to remain open. Or when Dr. Mary “Missy” Cummings was appointed as an advisor to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Dr. Cummings authored a study that found Tesla’s autopilot operated inconsistently. When her appointment became public, Musk set off an onslaught on social media vitriol aimed at Dr. Cummings. She’s since recused herself from an investigations involving Tesla.

Anyway, the point is when Musk complains about something loudly enough, it tends to go his way. But it seems like he misunderstood the resolve of a Biglaw firm.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Cooley LLP got an “ultimatum” from Musk. The firm represents Tesla in a number of matters, and Musk felt that entitled him to demand they fire an attorney that never worked on any matters on behalf of Tesla. That’s because the firm hired an associate with previous Securities and Exchange Commission experience, and while at the SEC the attorney interviewed Musk as part of an investigation:

At the SEC, the attorney had interviewed Mr. Musk during the agency’s investigation of the Tesla chief executive’s 2018 tweet claiming, wrongly, to have secured funding to potentially take the electric-vehicle maker private.

The probe resulted in a settlement in which Mr. Musk agreed to resign as chairman and pay a $20 million fine. He also agreed to have a Tesla lawyer review in advance tweets about certain topics, including the company’s financial results, sales numbers and proposed business combinations.

When Cooley refused to bow to this demand, Musk reportedly retaliated by pulling work from the firm:

Cooley has declined to fire the attorney, who remains an associate at the firm, the people said. Since early December, Tesla has begun taking steps in several cases to replace Cooley or add additional counsel, legal documents show. Mr. Musk’s rocket company Space Exploration Technologies Corp., also known as SpaceX, has stopped using Cooley for regulatory work, according to people familiar with the matter.

Good for Cooley for not allowing Musk to dictate their hiring. Listen, Biglaw firms get a lot of (deserved) flack from people (me, I’m people) for their problematic cultures. And when an attorney’s value to a firm is measured in six-minute increments, it’s easy to see how that can turn south. But in standing up against a high-profile client, Cooley put their money where their mouth is. In a hot lateral market, details like this about a firm that can really make a difference.


Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).

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