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Heeding Christie's counsel

Domalewski says ‘something special' brewing when future governor first recruited him

- Last modified: March 13, 2012 at 10:41 AM

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After serving as 
Gov. Chris Christie's senior counsel since 2009, Craig Domalewski returns to his old law firm, now named Dughi, Hewit & Domalewski.
After serving as Gov. Chris Christie's senior counsel since 2009, Craig Domalewski returns to his old law firm, now named Dughi, Hewit & Domalewski.

Chris Christie has made three job offers to Craig Domalewski, and each one came with a pay cut.

"He said it would be for less money, it would double your commute and add a lot of aggravation — but I don't know how you can possibly say no to that kind of job offer," Domalewski said of the most recent opportunity, in 2009, when he agreed to serve as senior counsel in the incoming governor's administration.

Now, after serving through the first half of Christie's term, Domalewski has returned to his former employer, now known as Dughi, Hewit & Domalewski P.C., in Cranford.

Domalewski, 43, first joined the firm two decades ago as a paralegal. After two years, he went on to law school at Seton Hall, graduating second in his class and earning a job offer from the powerhouse Newark firm Gibbons P.C. Then Domalewski got a call from Christie, at the time a partner at Dughi & Hewit. He couldn't match Gibbons' compensation, but Christie convinced him his firm could offer something better.

"There was an energy and a sense that there was something special going on here, and that the core group of people that were here were really on to something that was going to be significant," he said. "I felt like I was really getting in on the ground floor."

Domalewski quickly took on a major role at the firm, primarily on liability defense cases, mostly representing pharmaceutical companies. He later moved into insurance coverage litigation, and later worked on environmental cases.

Russell L. Hewit, a founding partner at the firm and a longtime mentor to Domalewski, said Domalewski has the sound judgment and quick mind a good lawyer needs.

"He's not someone that shoots from the hip," Hewit said. "He's someone that thinks things through, that's got the intellectual firepower to think through very complicated and sophisticated issues, and then to articulate both the issue and the solution."

In the Christie administration, Domalewski oversaw a team of attorneys handling a variety of issues. One of his proudest achievements was putting in place the legal framework for the creation of the Atlantic City tourism district, and working out a public-private partnership to help promote the struggling tourism hub.

Atlantic City officials "were in a position where they needed the support, and they needed leadership," Domalewski said. "From my perspective, it was a smart decision to try to turn it around, because I think it's something that's capable of turning around."

Looking at the mild-mannered family man talk with his hands folded before him on a conference table, it's hard to imagine him chasing down quarterbacks as a highly recruited college linebacker.

"Anyone who plays football knows there are things you can do on a football field that you can get arrested for if you do it off a football field," he said.

Still, Domalewski, who played for Lehigh University, said his on-field performance was fueled by his more cerebral off-field routine, spending hours studying and learning his opponents' tendencies. In that sense, it's much like his legal career.

"There might have been guys who were bigger, there might have been guys who were faster," he said. "But when you were prepared, you would get to the play because you'd be expecting the play more readily. You could anticipate."

That ability makes him good at judging his audience, according to John Dughi Jr., the firm's other founding partner, who said Domalewski knows what to say and when to say it.

Dughi recalled an instance where he was rushing through some "obnoxious" federal court paperwork. Domalewski noticed Dughi's lack of meticulousness and tactfully asked if he could take over. Soon, the paperwork was in "absolutely apple pie order."

"That's the kind of guy he is," Dughi said. "He's in no way a shrinking violet, but he really gets the job done, and he gets it done in the least non-agreeable fashion. He doesn't fight with people just to fight."

Though he's only been back in private practice for a few months, Domalewski already is taking advantage of the extra time afforded from his shorter commute and slightly less-demanding hours. The father of three coached his daughter's youth basketball team this season; he had coached his sons, but gave it up to take the administration post.

It was family considerations that led to the only time he turned down a Christie job offer. When Christie was appointed U.S. attorney, he asked Domalewski to join him in Newark. But Domalewski's wife had just given birth to twins, and they were living on a single income, so the timing was wrong.

In 2009, however, the timing proved right. Domalewski said he believes his experience in the governor's office will prove beneficial to his career, both in terms of the knowledge he gained and the visibility it will bring his firm.

"It's my own little American Dream," he said. "I started here as a paralegal, as a 22-year-old kid fresh out of Lehigh, and then, to flash forward 20 years later — to have the opportunity to come back from the governor's office and put my name at the top of the letterhead and be entrusted as one of the people that's going to be leading this firm — it was a tremendous honor."

E-mail to: jkaltwasser@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @JaredKaltwasser

A proving ground for political future

If you haven't heard of the Cranford law firm Dughi, Hewit & Domalewski P.C., you've certainly heard of their clients — and their alumni.
The boutique complex litigation firm handles cases for major pharmaceutical, health care and other corporate clients. Its roster of former attorneys includes Gov. Chris Christie; his attorney general, Jeffrey Chiesa; and his close confidant, William Palatucci, senior vice president of Community Education Centers.

Russell L. Hewit, a founding partner at the firm, said he first encountered Christie when the future governor was a law clerk for Hewit's opposing counsel on a complex case that ended up before the state Supreme Court.

"Because of the responsibility he was given, I had some interactions and observations with him — and what hit me was, this was a very smart, creative, hard-working young lawyer," said Hewit, who called Christie in for an interview with his partner, John Dughi Jr.

Dughi, who is quick with a story and blunt with his words, was at work at his stand-up desk when a young Christie walked in. Dughi was busy, and he told Christie as much.

"I said I can give you about 40 to 50 percent of my attention, and we can get started," Dughi recalled telling Christie. "This is a kid — I think he's still in law school, or just graduated — and he says, 'Mr. Dughi, I'll wait, because I'm going to need all of your attention.'"

With that, Christie had Dughi's attention. They talked for 15 minutes, Dughi consulted with Hewit, and they hired him right away.

"It's the smartest answer, but very few people have the confidence to give it," Dughi said. "There were any number of ways to get out of that (situation), but he didn't choose those. He instinctively chose the best one to deal with me. That might have pissed somebody else off."

Dughi and Hewit founded the firm in Westfield in 1979. Both had been associates at Shanley & Fisher — now Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP — but Dughi said he was itching to open a law office with his own name on the door.

"It wasn't like today, where you played musical chairs," Dughi said. "You stayed (at a firm), and I didn't want to be with that many people forever."

As the firm's former attorneys have taken high-profile jobs in government and the private sector, Hewit said it's not unusual for him to get a call as part of a background check. Hewit said he can offer little aside from praise.

"The last time I was asked was a call about Attorney General Chiesa," Hewit said. "And I said, 'Do you want to hear more good things about him?'"
– Jared Kaltwasser

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