The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Aisling O’Shea, Co-Head—FCPA and Anti-Corruption Group
Aisling O’Shea is co-head of Sullivan & Cromwell’s FCPA and Anti-Corruption group and a member of the Litigation group. Her practice focuses on criminal defense, government investigations, and the FCPA.
Aisling began her legal career working on complex financial investigations as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell. She then served for five years as a trial attorney in the FCPA Unit of the Fraud Section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division. Aisling and her case team received the Homeland Security Investigations Outstanding Financial Investigation award in 2016 for their work on a complex FCPA and money-laundering investigation involving corruption in a state-owned oil company in Venezuela. The investigation resulted in more individual prosecutions than any other FCPA matter and over a dozen guilty pleas.
Aisling returned to Sullivan & Cromwell in 2017. She has been recognized as one of “North America’s Future Leaders in Investigations” by Who’s Who Legal (2019, 2020) and listed in GIR’s Women in Investigations survey (2018).
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
I’m a member of Sullivan & Cromwell’s Litigation group, and my practice focuses on criminal defense, government investigations, and FCPA work. We represent companies and individuals in criminal, regulatory, and internal investigations.
What types of clients do you represent?
Like all lawyers at S&C, our client roster in this practice area is very diverse. I’ve represented financial institutions, manufacturing organizations, and all types of companies—some of which are highly regulated and others that are less so. I also represent individuals across a wide swath of industries.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
As co-head of S&C’s FCPA and Anti-Corruption practice, I work on FCPA and other corruption-related matters but also on matters related to securities fraud, wire fraud, corporate internal controls, tax issues—you name it. The way in which we approach our white collar practice is a microcosm of the generalist model we use to approach everything else, which means that we’re encountering not just a wide variety of clients, but also a wide variety of legal and factual issues.
How did you choose this practice area?
The initial cases that I worked on as a young associate at S&C were government investigations where we represented companies. The first was a mutual fund company in both criminal and regulatory investigations, and the second was an insurance company in a series of criminal investigations. I fell in love with that kind of work and feel fortunate both to have had the opportunity to see things from the other side when I left S&C in 2012 to become a federal prosecutor and also to have been able to rejoin the firm five years later with that experience under my belt.
What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
There is a huge range to how I spend my days! When I’m in the office, I spend a good deal of time on the phone with clients strategizing about issues or reviewing documents, including underlying factual records related to my cases and work-product-like advocacy pieces to use with the government. A significant portion of my days are also spent brainstorming and thinking deeply about the various cases on which I’m working and how to approach the complex issues my clients face. When I’m not in the office, I might be meeting with the government or clients or interviewing witnesses. Given the range of what we do in our practice, there really is no one typical day, which is one of the things that keeps it exciting.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
Generally speaking, I recommend taking courses in areas that genuinely interest you and reflect your long-term goals. It’s also important to try and gain relevant, hands-on work experience in both of your summers. The government offers terrific, rigorous internship programs that can be a great option for your 1L summer, even if you ultimately want to end up at a law firm after you graduate. To the extent that they’re available, I would also recommend pursuing a criminal law clinic or externship during the school year, which can be incredibly valuable. At the end of the day, it’s important to “test the waters” before you begin practicing and gain as much practical experience as you can, which will help you determine whether you actually enjoy working in the areas of law that you’re drawn to as a student.
What is the most challenging aspect of practicing in this area?
What I enjoy the most about my practice is also what’s the most challenging. Not only do we deal with high-stakes, “bet-the-company” matters, but we’re also representing clients, including corporate clients, who are placing their trust in us as they face incredibly confusing and scary circumstances. The results of our efforts impact real people—their freedom and their livelihoods—and I feel a great duty to my clients to help them achieve the best possible outcomes.
What do you like best about your practice area?
One of the things that I love about my practice is that it allows me to deal on a daily basis with incredibly complex, high-stakes problems for which there are no clear or easy answers. At S&C, we have the luxury of representing so many different clients in such a wide variety of industries that I’m constantly learning and experiencing new things. To that end, one fun thing about being a litigator with a broad client base is that we also get to become experts on whatever it is our clients do. And while you can take that expertise and use it to inform your thinking in the future, you still have to learn about what your next client does.
What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area?
Even the very junior lawyers in our practice have many opportunities to experience firsthand the issues that our clients face and how the work they’re doing in the office relates to the real world. For example, a junior lawyer might be tasked with reviewing documents related to an upcoming witness interview and later be invited to attend that interview. Seeing how selecting the right documents allows us to question the witness in the most effective way and experiencing how the interview is received in the room can be highly rewarding. At S&C, we place an enormous amount of value on providing our junior lawyers not only with the technical skills they need to do the job, but also with the requisite practical experience that is necessary for them to develop and grow into well-rounded practitioners. As a result, all of our lawyers are treated as integral members of the team from day one, which makes the important work that we do that much more meaningful.
How important is prior criminal law experience (e.g., working for the Prosecutor’s office or DA) in paving a successful career in white collar defense?
At S&C, we train our lawyers to be generalists and don’t expect new lawyers to have any particular area of expertise. If you join our litigation group, for example, you’ll be trained to do white collar defense and investigations in the same way that you’ll be trained to practice securities litigation and employment arbitration and all of the other matters that our clients face. Our training model is reflective of the way we approach our practice more broadly; even among the partner ranks, many people continue to be true generalists throughout their careers. That said, many of my colleagues at S&C have spent time in the government as prosecutors, and I think having that experience and perspective is very valuable.