Podcast: Alumni @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Ryan Dickey, DOJ & GW Law
In the latest installment of Ropes & Gray’s Alumni @ RopesTalk podcast series, IP litigation partner Matt Rizzolo interviews Ryan Dickey, a cybercrime and intellectual property prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice. Ryan started his legal career at Ropes & Gray with plans to become a patent litigator. He talks about how his career goals shifted along the way, leading him to a federal clerkship in Hawaii, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and now, working at the DOJ and teaching at GW Law. Ryan shares what initially drew him to Ropes & Gray and how his time at the firm prepared him for his later career roles. He also offers his thoughts about why being kind is not only good life advice, but also important for professional success.
Matt Rizzolo: Hello, and thank you for joining us on this latest edition of the Ropes & Gray alumni podcast. I'm Matt Rizzolo, an IP litigation partner in the Ropes & Gray D.C. office. Today, I'm joined by Ropes & Gray alum, and cybercrime prosecutor, Ryan Dickey. Ryan started his career in the D.C. office of Ropes & Gray. He worked as a litigator before embarking on perhaps the greatest of all clerkships, at the District Court for the District of Hawaii. For some reason, he eventually found his way back to the D.C. area and has worked for a number of years since in both the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, and the Department of Justice specializing in cybercrime and cybersecurity issues.
Ryan, it's great to see you again, and thanks so much for being here. I'll give you a chance to give your disclaimer before I start to get into some of the questions.
Matt Rizzolo: We'll get to the DOJ in a bit, but let's start with, first, what brought you to Ropes & Gray way back when—how did you pick the firm, and what group did you work in?
Ryan Dickey: Ropes was my top choice back in law school. I summered there in 2006, and I joined as an associate after I graduated from law school in 2007. I was in the patent litigation group in the D.C. office, although I split my summer between the Boston office and the D.C. office. I joined for a couple of reasons. I had studied computer engineering when I was in college—I went to UVA undergrad—and I was really excited to practice patent litigation after graduating from law school. My whole plan when I got to the last year or so of engineering was to be a patent litigator. After law school, I had passed the patent bar and everything, so I was focused on firms that had strong patent litigation practices, which Ropes absolutely had, and still does. There was something in my mind that wasn't fully committed to patent litigation, or wasn't sure if I would be any good at it, and so, I was hoping to work somewhere that had a litigation practice that went beyond intellectual property—something well-rounded—and that was Ropes.
The second reason was the people. It's totally cliché, but it's true. I tried to do my due diligence before I made the final decision. Being in Boston—Ropes has a big presence in Boston—I went to Boston University for law school, so there were a lot of students who I was friends with who had summered at Ropes or worked there full-time. I reached out to people to get coffee or get lunch to pepper them with questions about their work experience. I did the same thing for other firms, but it was the Ropes attorneys who I heard over and over again about how much they actually liked it and recommended it to me, whereas I can't say the same was true for all of the other places that I asked about. So, at the end of the day, that sealed the deal. I summered there and loved it. I think if you have a really good experience as a summer, you're going to go back—and I did, and I liked it a lot.
Matt Rizzolo: Obviously, we had some good times way back when doing some softball games on the Mall. Then you left the firm for a clerkship, and I can't really begrudge you for doing so given its location. Can you talk a bit about that experience? What was the best part other than obviously the weather?
Ryan Dickey: Yes, which is phenomenal. In all honesty, it was a hard decision to make. It was kind of brutal because when I was in law school, I sent out over a hundred applications during my 2L year—did a couple of interviews that I botched. Sent out another hundred applications my 3L year—botched a couple more interviews. This was something that I had been wanting to do for a long time. I was happy. I was in the D.C. office. I was doing patent litigation. It was fun. It was challenging. It was obviously well-paid. I was friends with my colleagues. And then, this opportunity to clerk came up. My wife, Erica, and I had just gotten engaged about a month before the judge called to offer me this position. So, we moved up the wedding—got married on a Saturday. I was in Hawaii by Wednesday. Neither of us had ever even been to Hawaii before that, so the best part was spending a year and a half there with my wife as newlyweds just going outdoors all the time—hiking and beaches. Even though it's an expensive place to live, everything is fun to do—a lot of it's free. The food's phenomenal, especially if you like seafood, poké and Spam musubi. Work-wise, I clerked for this fantastic judge, Helen Gillmor, and she's still on the bench. I learned a ton about litigation, how to write better, how to be more persuasive and more effective in court. It was a great learning experience—I would highly recommend for sure.
Matt Rizzolo: After your extended honeymoon paid for by the federal government, so to speak, you came back to the D.C. area, to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Can you talk a bit about your transition from working at a law firm, and then clerking, to working at the government in a legal position?
Ryan Dickey: I was hired into the cybercrime unit of the U.S. Attorney's Office, which is in Alexandria. First of all, I had little to no experience being a prosecutor. My experience was pretty much what I had learned during my clerkship, seeing AUSAs in court, handling some criminal matters, and then what I had learned in law school in classes like Crim Pro or in Crim Law. Thank goodness, at Ropes, I had actually had the opportunity to take and defend a couple of depositions in patent cases, and I worked on pro bono cases that gave me some standup experience in court. But I had a lot to learn, and I think this is true in a lot of prosecution offices—for criminal justice in general, both on the prosecution and the defense. You're going to be thrown in, it's a little bit of a trial by fire, so I had a lot to learn there. The other thing is it's no secret that government lawyers don't earn big law salaries. My salary at the U.S. Attorney's Office was actually a pay cut from the clerkship. I'm just going to let that sink in…the clerkship was less than half of what I had earned at Ropes & Gray right when I left. To this day, I have never earned as much as I did when I left Ropes. And then, the D.C. Metro area obviously has a high cost of living. So, those are probably the two biggest hurdles that I faced.
On the other hand, thank goodness, there is an upside. The work is incredibly rewarding. I tell my kids when they ask about work that the job of a prosecutor is to help people, and to help people who have been victimized by crime. Maybe their computers have been hacked, their money's been stolen, or they're being harassed online—whatever it is, my job is to help them. So, there is that side, and I do love my job, but it was an uphill battle.
Matt Rizzolo: How was your day-to-day changed during the pandemic?
Ryan Dickey: I was going into the office every day. We were going into court regularly before the pandemic. And now, I've been working at home ever since. It was Friday, March 13, 2020, so we're coming up on two years now. I have two young kids who are elementary school age. Although, when the pandemic started, my daughter was at the end of preschool, and so, that first year, they were home with me and my wife. It was challenging. We had this staggered schedule where my wife would wake up early, do her hours while I was with the kids, and then we would switch—I'd be with them in the morning, then she'd be with them in the afternoon. Then, because I'm more of a night owl, I would log back in and finish up my hours at night after the kids went to bed. Thankfully, we were fortunate enough to have jobs that have flexible schedules so we could actually do that and make it work. I can't really complain. Now, thank goodness, the kids are in school.
The Department of Justice Criminal Division is starting to bring folks back to the office, or at least make plans for that, so we're headed in the right direction. The other thing was courts. Everything was closed for a while, and that included grand juries. Courts weren't holding hearings. One of the very few bright silver linings from this pandemic is that courts have now been forced—we were all forced—to do things virtually. Now, a lot of our hearings are just virtual on Zoom, and so, that's actually been one of the better things to come out of all this. Hopefully, to some extent, that part sticks around because we don't always have to drag people into in-person proceedings when it's just a status conference or something that can be done pretty easily virtually.
Matt Rizzolo: I think that change is something that government attorneys, private attorneys and clients can really agree that that's beneficial. It cuts down on a lot of travel that would otherwise be unnecessary. It cuts down a lot of costs. You talked a bit about your experience at Ropes and how it, depositions, etc., helped prepare you. Is there anything else about your experience at Ropes that you think really was key in preparing you for your work at the U.S. Attorney's Office and now DOJ?
Ryan Dickey: First, there were those practical skills: Becoming a better writer, becoming a better speaker, and getting some experience with depositions and some standup experience in court. But probably, frankly, the most important thing was just about teams. At Ropes, it was the first time I had worked at a place that put an emphasis on putting together the right team for the right project for the right client for the right case. Everything I do now, I'm seeing or realizing in prosecution is with small teams, and so, now I'm focusing a lot on making sure you get the right folks as early as possible to be part of a team. That was something that was always emphasized at Ropes, and was something that I was fortunate enough to have great teams on the cases that I worked on when I was there as a patent litigator.
Matt Rizzolo: Speaking of teams, if you will, I know you were detailed to the famous Robert Mueller investigation team several years ago. Is that right? How did that come about?
Ryan Dickey: That's right. I was detailed to Robert Mueller's Special Counsel's Office. It was a fascinating experience. I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, that's about all that I can say about the experience.
Matt Rizzolo: That is understandable. Turning to something else, and hopefully you can share on this, I know cybercrime issues can really run the gamut from a wide-scale hacking to run-of-the-mill credit card fraud, child pornography issues, etc. What's the craziest matter that you've worked on while being at DOJ to the extent you can share it?
Ryan Dickey: I've been lucky enough to work on some great teams involving cases that are in each of those categories: Widespread hacking, child exploitation, fraud. One of the cases that does stand out to me was the prosecution of a guy named >Marcel Lazăr Lehel, who was better known by his hacker moniker “Guccifer.” He was somebody who hacked into a number of accounts that belonged to some very high-profile folks, and he was very hard to find, but we had a fantastic team on the case. There was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Service, and State Department's Diplomatic Security Services—we all came together, worked our tails off, and eventually, we located and extradited Mr. Lazăr to the United States. He did plead guilty, cooperated and accepted responsibility for what he did. It turned out to be a pretty solid case.
Matt Rizzolo: That's fascinating. I understand you're also teaching computer crime now at my alma mater, the George Washington University Law School, right across the street here. Can you talk a bit about how you came to teach that? I actually took that class while I was in law school years ago from Orin Kerr.
Ryan Dickey: You're very lucky you took it with Kerr, then, and not with me. Orin Kerr is excellent. Once upon a time, he worked in the office that I work in now, which is the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property section of the Department of Justice, before he went into academia. We didn't work there at the same time, but I know Orin. I actually reached out to him after I was hired to teach the class. They were looking for somebody who had practical experience doing cybercrime work, and he could not have been more helpful with advice, sample slides, the whole nine yards. Of course, I used his textbook, which is the authority on computer crime out there right now. It turned out to be a really fun class, and it's a great topic. GW's bringing me back, thank goodness, to teach again in the fall, so I'm really looking forward to it.
Matt Rizzolo: Turning back to Ropes, did you have any mentors who you think especially influenced your career?
Ryan Dickey: Peter Brody and Steve Pepe come to mind—they're still at Ropes. Those guys absolutely stoked my interest in intellectual property and in litigation—that's stuck with me to this day. I was clerking, but I got the job as a prosecutor, and I reached out to Peter to talk to him about it and to make sure I wasn't crazy. I'll never forget what he told me—he said, "This is a good thing. It's going to toughen you up. It'll toughen you up." I hope he was right.
Matt Rizzolo: Now, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, and maybe some extra toughness, what advice do you have for young associates coming up the ranks who are finding their feet, finding their practice? You started off thinking, "I want to do patent litigation," and now, you've transitioned into this career as a cybercrime prosecutor. What should people be thinking?
Ryan Dickey: On the one hand, it's almost impossible to give people advice because they just have to find their own way, but there are two things that have worked well for me. One is don't kill yourself hounding the ideal project or assignments—whatever you're given, just do the best job you can do. If you take that approach, it doesn't take long before you're getting the pick of the litter when it comes to good projects. Just do a good job with wherever you are. The second thing is probably more important—just to be kind to people. That's not just good life advice, but it's this really small world when it comes to the legal practice in the D.C. Metro area. I think kindness pays dividends over time. The number of times I've had an experience where, almost out of the blue, you come across somebody in your work—whether it's “I'm a prosecutor and now they're a defense counsel” or they're going to be an expert witness or something—and it's a person that I had worked with or worked across five, seven, ten years ago, and having that good working relationship is, I think, just critical to success, especially in this area.
Matt Rizzolo: Obviously, people are listening so they can't see how vigorously I'm nodding in agreement with you on those points. It is such a small world, and you might even run into people randomly at your kid's soccer games, like we do from time to time. How about advice for people —whether it's an in-house job or at a firm—who might be considering a move to the government? What should they know?
Ryan Dickey: First, I'd say the same advice: Work hard with whatever you're given, and be kind. The government is full of folks who used to work in private practice, myself included—most of the people that I work with, as well. Frankly, many of them eventually go back to private practice, especially as their kids approach college age. In addition to that, just don't forget to spend time with your family and friends because there's a lot more out there than work, as important as it is.
Matt Rizzolo: Before we wrap up, I want to get to a couple Ropes-focused topics to close things out. Any favorite Ropes memories come to mind?
Ryan Dickey: Softball was actually one of the top memories that I have, but it's kind of crummy to say that because it's not research, writing or litigation-focused. It's not necessarily a work focus, but it also is about the culture of the office, and hanging out with people and doing more than just work. But the other one was, I have a great memory of traveling to Seoul, South Korea with the rest of the team on a patent litigation case to meet with the client. We worked like crazy. Then one night, we went out to dinner with the team and the client. We had Korean barbecue, which was phenomenal. Then afterwards, we went for late-night karaoke, which I was terrible at, but it was a blast. So, those stand out to me.
Matt Rizzolo: Let's go to the lightning round here. My favorite sports team is?
Ryan Dickey: UVA basketball, followed closely by the U.S. men's and women's soccer teams.
Matt Rizzolo: My ideal Friday night is spent?
Ryan Dickey: Dinner with my two kids and my wife—burger and fries with a Coke. If I could, I would bring back Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington.
Matt Rizzolo: Ray's Hell Burger—I miss that place. Dinner out or dinner in, or switch it up?
Ryan Dickey: In. Then, when I put the kids to bed, we read out loud from whatever book. My kids are five and eight. Right now, we're reading through Beverly Cleary's Ramona books.
Matt Rizzolo: If I wasn't a practicing attorney, I'd be?
Ryan Dickey: A journalist. I love the news no matter how depressing it gets.
Matt Rizzolo: If someone handed me $25 million today, I would?
Ryan Dickey: Invest it in a diversified mutual fund. I'm kidding.
Matt Rizzolo: Very practical advice.
Ryan Dickey: We'd buy a bigger house. My daughter has to basically live in a closet in this house. Then, we would get a dog—something hypoallergenic like a Giant Schnauzer, a Portuguese Water Dog or some poodle mix. And then, invest the rest in a diversified mutual fund.
Matt Rizzolo: There you go. Ropes & Gray is?
Ryan Dickey: An awesome place to practice law.
Matt Rizzolo: I completely agree with that, and I think that's a great place to wrap up. Thanks so much, Ryan, for joining me today. For all of our Ropes & Gray alumni out there, please visit our alumni website, at alumni.ropesgray.com, to stay up to date on our alumni happenings as well as the latest news about the firm and our lawyers. Thank you all for listening.