In Memoriam: William S. Consovoy (1974-2023)
Will Consovoy, a leading lawyer in the conservative legal movement, was not your typical SCOTUS advocate—and leaves behind a remarkable legacy.
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William Consovoy, a leading figure in the conservative legal world, passed away on January 9. He was only 48. I shared the news in a Twitter thread, which was confirmed by an official obituary and a news release from Consovoy McCarthy, the elite litigation boutique he founded in 2014, and followed by coverage in Law360.
The obituary and news release did not specify a cause of death, but as Consovoy’s law partner Thomas McCarthy told Joan Biskupic of CNN last year, Consovoy was being treated for brain cancer that had been diagnosed approximately two years earlier. If not for his illness, Consovoy would have argued before the Supreme Court last October in his firm’s legal challenge to affirmative action at Harvard—a landmark litigation that he and his colleagues shepherded patiently through the courts for years.
The Harvard and UNC affirmative-action cases case could end up being Consovoy’s most enduring legal legacy if they bring an end to racial preferences in higher education (as many predict), but he worked on numerous high-profile matters over his two-decade career. At Wiley Rein, where he and Tom McCarthy were partners before leaving to launch their own firm, Consovoy was part of the team that successfully litigated Shelby County v. Holder, a consequential and controversial case about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and also worked on Fisher v. University of Texas, an unsuccessful challenge to affirmative action at UT.
Will Consovoy wasn’t your typical Supreme Court advocate. In a Washington Post profile discussing Consovoy’s representation of former president Donald Trump in litigation over his tax and financial records, Ann Marimow described Consovoy as “unconventional lawyer with an unconventional client”—and one can see why. In the words of Professor William Baude, a longtime SCOTUS watcher and friend of Consovoy, “Many lawyers in D.C. have this kind of upper-class affect, and Will is not one of those. You can tell he’s still sort of the scrappy guy from New Jersey who doesn’t care about the pomp and circumstance.” As noted in his obituary, Consovoy was passionate about several things that wouldn’t be regarded as hoity-toity, like the Philadelphia Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, and the Jersey Shore (the place and not the show, mercifully).
Nor did Consovoy attend an Ivy League college or top-14 law school—and there’s a message in that, as Sarah Isgur explained in her moving personal tribute to Consovoy on the latest episode of Advisory Opinions:
To the high schoolers, undergrads, and law students who listen to this podcast, Will wasn’t “that guy.” He didn't go to Princeton and Harvard. He went to Monmouth. And then he worked for the parole board. He went to George Mason Law School, and his first-year grades could generously be described as mediocre.
But then something changed. Will just said he realized he loved this stuff and it meant something. He clerked for an Arlington County judge, and that judge knew something was different about Will and called [Fifth Circuit Judge] Edith Jones and told her she had to meet this guy, and Judge Jones made the same call to Clarence Thomas.
Based on the recommendation of Judge Jones, as well as raves from former clerks who worked with Consovoy at Wiley Rein, Justice Thomas hired him—the first GMU Law graduate to clerk for SCOTUS, and one who paved the way for others (including two who are currently at One First Street).
Back to Isgur (these are just excerpts, listen to the whole thing—and try not to get choked up, as I did):
[L]ife isn't always a meritocracy. But at the same time, it's hard to keep the truly spectacular from succeeding. Will was just a guy from Jersey who found his calling. But most importantly, Will succeeded without sharp elbows. He didn’t revel in other people’s failures. He wasn't particularly interested in gossip. For those just starting out, Will is proof that you can succeed in the law and be a zealous advocate—and let me be clear, Will was zealous—while being good, kind, and gracious.
After clerking for Justice Thomas, Consovoy returned to Wiley Rein and worked with founding partner Bert Rein on major cases like Shelby County and Fisher. But perhaps realizing that a boutique might be more conducive to handling cutting-edge, controversial cases (cf. the Cooper & Kirk model), Will Consovoy and Tom McCarthy left Wiley Rein in 2014 to start their own shop. As reported by Tony Mauro in the National Law Journal, they took with them the Supreme Court clinic at GMU Law (now Scalia Law), which the firm continues to oversee, and what would turn into the Harvard and UNC affirmative-action cases. (I profiled the firm—then known as Consovoy McCarthy Park, before Michael Park left to become a Second Circuit judge—in 2015.)
In the intervening eight-plus years, Consovoy McCarthy has thrived. It has done well financially, growing from two lawyers to more than 20, and excelled in other ways too. It has handled headline-making cases, from the affirmative-action litigation to multiple matters for Trump, including litigation over his financial records that went all the way to SCOTUS (Trump v. Mazars); legal battles accusing him of violating the Emoluments Clause; and election-law cases (but none of the crazy ones). Consovoy McCarthy has also served as a launching pad for legal careers, minting SCOTUS clerks—several of its former summer and full-time associates have gone on to clerk for the Court—and SCOTUS advocates, thanks to the founding partners’ willingness to “share the wealth” on oral-argument opportunities.
On the professional front, Will Consovoy had so much to be proud of. But according to his friends and colleagues, career success wasn’t what mattered most to him. Far more important were his friends and family, including his wife Masa Anisic, who passed away after her own cancer battle in April 2021 (only a year after they got married); his sister Amanda; and his niece Lila, whom he referred to as “his favorite person in the world.”
Consovoy cared deeply for his colleagues as well. Certain Supreme Court advocates are “ball hogs” when it comes to SCOTUS arguments, but not Will Consovoy. As noted in the firm’s news release, he believed deeply in mentoring and giving opportunities to younger lawyers—which explains why five other Consovoy McCarthy lawyers argued before the high court during his time there, and a sixth will argue next month. (Consovoy argued two cases personally before SCOTUS—Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, a case not famous to the public but of great practical importance to litigators on “standing,” and Evenwel v. Abbott, about the “one person, one vote” principle.)
As his law partner Patrick Strawbridge told me yesterday over the phone, “Will was an extremely gifted lawyer, the smartest lawyer I’ve met in my life, but he was an even better person—unfailingly kind, civil, and supportive. He mentored a ton of people, pretty much anyone who sought him out, for any type of advice.”
“There’s a reason why he got so many invitations to coffee and lunch,” Strawbridge said. “Anyone who knew Will wanted to learn from him and wanted to be his friend. You always felt you were the most important person when talking to him. We’re just going to do our best at the firm to be his legacy.”
Even those who disagreed vociferously with Consovoy on the law acknowledged his talents as a lawyer and decency as a person. In a 2019 Washington Post op-ed, George T. Conway III and Neal Katyal condemned Consovoy’s D.C. Circuit brief in Trump v. Mazars as “spectacularly anti-constitutional.” But both expressed sadness over Consovoy’s passing, with Katyal adding that even though he and Consovoy disagreed on pretty much everything, he “was always brilliant and fierce and terrific,” but “tempered that with a deep civility to me and his other adversaries. I will miss him.”
Although we had many friends in common, I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Will Consovoy well. But whenever we crossed paths, he was always gracious and warm. The last time I saw him in person was at the Second Circuit courthouse in New York, for the September 2019 investiture of our mutual friend, Judge Michael Park. Consovoy suggested that we grab lunch the next time I was in D.C.—which I remember thinking odd, since we weren’t close—but I now realize that was just the kind of outgoing and generous person he was.
Remarks at investiture ceremonies are often staid, sometimes stale. But Will Consovoy’s speech about Judge Park was the perfect combination of hilarious and heartwarming—so entertaining that it actually made the investiture fun. Consovoy roasted his friend, but not too much (it’s a fine line), then concluded by making clear why Judge Park would be such a superb addition to the bench. The remarks were perfectly calibrated, the best investiture speech I’ve ever heard.
I reached out to Judge Park, who had this to say about his former law partner and friend:
One of the silver linings in all this is seeing the outpouring of love and admiration for Will—people who remember not just his legal work, but his warmth, humor, and loyalty. As he got sicker, he got even more down-to-earth, wanting to talk mostly about friends, memories, and sports.
One of the hardest things about his death is knowing that he was just hitting his stride. The firm he and Tom started eight years ago is now one of the elite boutiques in the country. Is there any firm with more lawyers who have done a SCOTUS argument? That was Will’s leadership style—he wanted to develop a team.
The firm and its work will be a great legacy. I’m proud to have been his partner and friend.
I agree with Judge Park about how Consovoy “was just hitting his stride,” and how especially sad it is when we lose someone in their prime. I have memorialized a number of remarkable lawyers and judges in these pages, but none as young as Consovoy, who still had decades ahead of him.
Another prominent federal judge and close friend to Will Consovoy, Judge Andrew Oldham (5th Cir.), wrote as follows in his own tribute (collected alongside others from Edward Blum, Ashley Keller, Cory Liu, and Adam Mortara, all of them worth reading):
William Consovoy was a generational legal talent. He had the sort of prodigious legal mind that made him the smartest person in a room full of geniuses. He could see arguments that eluded everyone else. And he could win cases that not only struck others as unwinnable, but that transformed the way we understand the law….
What’s harder for everyone to understand is that, as unmatched as Will was as a lawyer, he was even more unmatchable as a friend. He was thoughtful and kind. The sort of man who would remember, even in the midst of his own crises, to love those around him. Who supported us while facing challenges that dwarfed ours. Who answered his phone on the first ring in the middle of the night, just in case it was a friend who needed something. And who put others’ needs before his own, no matter the cost, and no matter the occasion….
It’s the bitterest imaginable tragedy that Will would be felled by the very brain that made him so transcendentally brilliant, kind, and generous. He leaves behind one of the Nation’s finest law firms. Countless friends and family members whose lives are poorer for his absence. And an American legal tradition that owes him an inestimable debt.
Indeed. William S. Consovoy, rest in peace.
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