An accomplished lawyer, Strauss founded the law firm now known as Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in 1945, which has grown to be one of the largest in the world with offices in 15 cities and employing over 900 lawyers and professionals worldwide. His extensive business activities have included serving on the Texas Banking Commission and as Chairman of the U.S.-Russia Business Council. Among many awards and accolades, Strauss was inducted into the Academy of Achievement in 2003 and was recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award, on January 16, 1981. He is also a trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and The Forum for International Policy, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission.
Strauss has occupied several academic chairs and lecture positions, including one as the Lloyd Bentsen Chair at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas. He is also the namesake of The Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at The University of Texas. Additionally, Strauss has an interest in biomedical issues and has endowed two chairs at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas: the Helen and Robert S. Strauss Professorship in Pediatric Neurology and the Helen and Robert S. Strauss Professorship in Urology.
In his sophomore year at The University of Texas at Austin Strauss campaigned for a state assembly candidate and was given a part-time job as a Committee Clerk in the Texas State Legislature. In 1937, while still an undergraduate, he volunteered for Lyndon Johnson's first congressional campaign. In law school at the University of Texas, he met another student who would have a large impact on his career, John B. Connally. After completing his law degree, Strauss was hired as a special agent by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and served in the FBI throughout World War II. At the end of the war, he settled in Dallas, where he and a fellow FBI agent, Richard A. Gump, founded their own law firm. This firm, originally known as Gump and Strauss, would eventually grow into the international law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.
When John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were elected President and Vice President in 1960, Connally, a former naval officer, was appointed Secretary of the Navy. Within a year, at Strauss's urging, Connally returned to Texas to run for governor. At the time, the Republican Party had no significant presence in Texas, but Connally nevertheless faced stiff opposition in the Democratic primary. Strauss's skill as a campaign adviser and fund-raiser was a crucial factor in Connally's narrow victory. Having secured the Democratic nomination, Connally easily won the general election. Connally's election finally brought Strauss the access to the Dallas business establishment he had long sought. Governor Connally appointed Strauss to the Texas Banking Commission, and Strauss's law firm grew and prospered.
The world of Texas politics was turned upside down, along with the rest of the country, by the events of November 1963. Governor Connally and his wife Nellie were riding in the limousine with President Kennedy in Dallas when the President was fatally shot. Governor Connally was severely wounded by the assassin's bullets, but soon recovered. Connally and Strauss's mentor and patron, Lyndon Johnson, was now President of the United States. Although Strauss did not regard himself as part of the President's inner circle of political advisers, Connally certainly was, and Robert Strauss's connection to Connally brought him closer to the President.
In Texas, Governor Connally was finding himself at odds with the more liberal wing of his own party, while on the national stage, Democrats were becoming bitterly divided over the Vietnam War. President Johnson solicited Strauss's advice on the issue. Strauss feared that continued involvement in the war was a mistake that was endangering Johnson's presidency, but he felt too intimidated by the imposing Johnson to share his true feelings. Strauss immediately regretted withholding his true opinion from the President; he resolved that if any President ever sought his advice again, he would tell him the truth, no matter what the President wanted to hear.
In the wake of this defeat, Strauss was elected Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Although emboldened by their success in the Congressional elections of 1974, the Democrats had no obvious front-runner for the presidential nomination in 1976. While remaining studiously neutral in the struggle for the nomination, Strauss carefully rebuilt the party's finances and planned a tightly disciplined national convention in New York City to erase memories of the chaotic gatherings of 1968 and 1972. By the time the Democrats met at Madison Square Garden, the nomination had been secured by an unexpected candidate, former Governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter.
Strauss expertly managed the convention. At the 1972 convention, party infighting had delayed candidate McGovern's acceptance speech until late at night, when the television audience had gone to sleep. Strauss made sure that Carter's acceptance speech ran in prime time, and the convention ended with a memorable tableau: the leaders of the party's opposing wings, conservative George Wallace and liberal George McGovern, flanking candidate Carter with clasped hands upraised. The Democrats entered the fall campaign united for the first time in years. Credit for this accomplishment was awarded to the Party's Chairman, Robert Strauss, and candidate Carter quickly asked Strauss to chair his election campaign as well. The national election was closely contested, but Carter emerged victorious. Strauss was acclaimed as a political kingmaker.
In 1980, Strauss's old friend John Connally finally made a run for the presidency. He entered the Republican primaries as a hard-core conservative, but found himself running at the back of the pack while Ronald Reagan emerged as the front-runner. Robert Strauss chaired President Carter's campaign committee once again in 1980, but President Carter did not win re-election. Before leaving office, President Carter awarded Robert Strauss the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.
Strauss returned to his law firm's thriving Washington office. His experience as Trade Representative made him a sought after expert on international trade matters.
In August 1991, only weeks after a state visit by President Bush, conservative members of the Communist Party and a few high-ranking officers of the military and KGB attempted to seize power and restore the old dictatorship. The coup collapsed, but Gorbachev's leadership had been fatally injured. Strauss presented his credentials to President Gorbachev only hours after Gorbachev resigned his post as Chairman of the Communist Party. While Strauss served in Moscow, the first elected President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, emerged as the most powerful figure in the fragile union. With the agreement of the elected presidents of the other constituent republics, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved and replaced by a loosely associated Commonwealth of Independent States.
In December, Gorbachev resigned the presidency of a super-state that had ceased to exist. Strauss was quickly re-appointed as Ambassador to the largest of the Soviet Union's successor states, the Russian Federation. With Strauss's assistance, President Yeltsin quickly established amicable relations with the United States. Strauss resigned this post shortly after the 1992 presidential election in the United States and returned once again to private law practice with Akin Gump.