Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney is stepping down from her post next month, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced this week.Varney came to DOJ with expectations that she would launch landmark cases against increasingly dominate firms in the agency’s stated mission to preserve competition and prevent anti-competitive conduct.  However, she leaves for a senior position at the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore amid disappointment from some antitrust watchers and consumer advocates who say DOJ was too soft on industry giants during her tenure. Cravath, Swaine & Moore is known for its antitrust practice and represented United Airlines in its merge with Continental, which DOJ approved last August.  The firm’s average profit per partner in 2010 was the fifth highest in the country.

In recent remarks on enforcing antitrust laws before the Chamber of Commerce, Varney discussed  DOJ’s work on the appropriate role for antitrust and regulatory enforcement in American agriculture, saying  “many significant problems faced in this segment cannot be resolved through competition policy and antitrust enforcement.”

DOJ, under Varney, approved a number of high-profile, controversial deals including the merger of Ticketmaster and LiveNation, Google’s acquisition of the powerful travel software firm ITA, and NBC’s marriage with Comcast.  In each of these, Varney attached limits on how companies could behave to address worries that the deals would hurt competition.

Varney joined DOJ in 2009, and her appointment was highly anticipated by consumer advocates that had criticized antitrust lawyers in the Bush administration as being too easy on big firms.  Varney indicated that she planned to be much more aggressive.  However, in reviewing some blockbuster mergers, Varney often pursed outcomes that did not involve litigation, instead applying solutions that forced companies to spin off certain units or follow certain rules.  These conditions, Varney said, satisfied DOJ concerns.