Richard Cullen will leave McGuireWoods to serve as counselor to Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, ending a 45-year career at Virginia’s largest law firm while opening a new chapter in a career that has often blended politics with law.
Cullen, 73, confirmed his plan to leave the firm to serve Youngkin, who will be inaugurated as Virginia’s 74th governor on Jan. 15, on a full-time basis. He will leave the law firm a day earlier, Jan. 14.
“This is something I felt called to do,” he said Monday.
Youngkin has also formally tapped the head of his transition team, Jeff Goettman, to serve as his chief of staff, according to a member of the transition.
Chief of staff is a high-ranking post with influence over the most sensitive decisions a governor and Cabinet make. Goettman was the chief operating officer of Youngkin’s campaign for governor. He previously worked for the U.S. Treasury in the Trump administration.
This is Cullen’s third departure from McGuireWoods, which he previously led as chairman, since he joined the firm in 1977. Cullen left to serve as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia from 1991 to 1993, and again to serve as Virginia’s attorney general in 1997 after Republican Jim Gilmore resigned to run for governor.
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Cullen also served as a special counsel to a congressional select committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair during the second term of President Ronald Reagan, working directly with then-U.S. Sen. Paul Trible, R-Va. He also was a member of the staff of then-Rep. Caldwell Butler, R-Va., during the investigation of the Watergate scandal in the administration of President Richard Nixon.
A stalwart Republican, he has reached across party lines on major policy initiatives, including working with then-Gov. Doug Wilder in 1993 to pass a gun control package that included a prohibition against purchasing more than one handgun a month. The law was repealed under Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, and then restored in 2020 by Gov. Ralph Northam after Democrats won control of the General Assembly.
In 2019, Cullen was part of a team from McGuireWoods that investigated the origin and nature of a racist photograph that appeared on Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page at Eastern Virginia Medical School. The school hired McGuireWoods after disclosure of the photograph on Feb. 1, 2019, prompted a scandal. The investigation was inconclusive.
“We can’t conclusively identify either person in the picture,” Cullen said at a news conference in Norfolk in May 2019.
Cullen and McGuireWoods partner John Adams, the 2017 GOP nominee for attorney general, also advised Virginia Military Institute after Northam ordered an independent investigation of alleged discrimination by his alma mater.
Cullen is senior partner of the government investigations and white collar litigation department at the law firm, which says on its website that Cullen “counsels corporate executives, boards of directors, elected officials and the heads of major nonprofit institutions on matters of the utmost sensitivity, often involving issues of national security.”
His clients have included former Vice President Mike Pence, the Boeing Co., the former head of the Federation International de Football Association, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the chairman of BP America and the parents of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who died of injuries he suffered in a prison in North Korea.
The Warmbiers won a $501 million judgment against the government of North Korea in December 2018. Experts said at the time that such a judgment would be hard to collect from a country with which the U.S. does not have diplomatic ties.
McGuireWoods Chairman Jonathan Harmon called Cullen’s influence at every level of government “nothing short of remarkable,” and Managing Partner Tracy Walker called him “a giant.”
“He has been a pillar of our firm, our community and the commonwealth,” Walker said.
Cullen has been a major player in politics, business and civic affairs in Richmond for more than 30 years. He and his brother-in-law, former Dominion Energy Chairman Tom Farrell, emerged as powerbrokers in the city, as well as the state Capitol. Farrell died last April, shortly after stepping down as chairman and president of the powerful energy conglomerate, which owns Virginia’s largest electric utility.
One of his sons, Thomas, was appointed in 2020 by President Donald Trump for a judgeship on U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate. His son had previously served for more than two years as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia.
In a statement issued by McGuireWoods on Monday, he credited the law firm for his ability to serve in public roles.
“When I have felt the pull of public service, McGuireWoods has encouraged me to answer that call, past and present,” Cullen said.
Staff writer Mel Leonor contributed to this report.