Keeping White Collars Clean

After a stint in the ultra-intense U.S. attorney’s office, nothing fazes criminal defense lawyer David Willingham

Published in 2010 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2010

A year and a half into David Willingham’s stint as a federal prosecutor at the Los Angeles U.S. attorney’s office, the young attorney’s supervisor came to him with an investment fraud case involving a $250 million Ponzi scheme. The case spanned multiple countries and the scheme was allegedly operated by a group of players that included a former counsel to the Canadian parliament. “My supervisor said, ‘Handle this,’” Willingham recalls with a laugh. “I guess he had a lot of confidence in me.” And with reason. Willingham ended up heading a meticulous prosecution that landed the scheme’s main operator in prison for 20 years.

During the course of his relatively short career, Willingham, today with Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, has handled all manner of complex white-collar crimes. His substantial track record includes numerous high-profile cases involving parallel investigations with the Securities and Exchange Commission and other high-level regulatory bodies.

An active member of the legal community, he serves as the co-chair of the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section White Collar Crime Committee Securities Fraud Sub-Committee, and was selected to sit on the ABA’s national task force regarding Upjohn Co. v. United States, a working group tasked with revamping the processes used by attorneys nationwide during internal investigations.

When the attorney decided to join Caldwell Leslie & Proctor in 2007, name partner Michael Proctor remarked, “We feel like we won the lottery with Dave.”

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Willingham originally set out to become a teacher. “I was always interested in civics and government and thought I would teach those subjects to kids,” he says. But then law captured his attention. “I’m not really sure when or why,” he shrugs, “but I was always a bit of a ham.”

Willingham graduated from UCLA in 1994, and went on to the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. As a second-year student, he took a summer job with San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services, working in the area of tenant rights. “I always knew I wanted to go back and work in my community at some point along the way.”

One of the directors at the office encouraged the motivated student to try for a clerk position at Lightfoot Vandevelde Sadowsky Crouchley Rutherford & Levine, which joined Crowell & Moring in 2008.

“I had a short stint at a smaller office of a big firm before Lightfoot at a renowned boutique white collar shop, with incredible lawyers and fantastic mentors,” he says. “From the second I walked in the door, I knew this was the kind of practice I wanted to work in. It involved complex litigation—sophisticated, high-level issues, and you worked with and against some of the best and the brightest attorneys around.”

From 1998 through 2001, Willingham soaked up the experience. One of his mentors, Michael Lightfoot, took Willingham to lunch and encouraged the young attorney to apply to be an assistant U.S. attorney. He applied and in 2001 was offered a position as a federal prosecutor at the Los Angeles U.S. attorney’s office. “I still think about it all the time—Mike was acting as a true mentor, advising me against his own self-interest to do what was best for my career.”

At the U.S. attorney’s office, Willingham says the intensity will either “make you or break you.” Willingham was made; he eventually became deputy chief of the Major Frauds Section. “Every single case I had there was a highlight.”

His time at the office culminated with a guilty plea to several felonies and a cash payment of $70 million from Ralph’s Grocery Co., after Willingham participated in a hard-hitting prosecution against the grocery giant for illegally rehiring locked-out employees.

After almost six and a half years, Willingham was positioned to take his pick of jobs in the private sector. He opted for the boutique scale of Caldwell Leslie over a larger firm. He hasn’t regretted it.

“Every case I do is fascinating in it’s own way and it’s the challenges that keep me working even harder,” he says.

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