Six years ago, attorney Barrie VanBrackle advised Myspace when the social network was toying with the idea of creating digital currency that would allow users to buy virtual gifts for their Myspace friends.
Today, VanBrackle, a veteran financial services regulatory lawyer at Manatt Phelps & Phillips in Washington, is applying some of the same legal principles to Bitcoin, the peer-to-peer currency exchange that is drawing scrutiny from federal and state officials.
“This is not the first digital currency, this is just the first widely accepted and widely understood one,” said VanBrackle, who represents companies interested in investing in Bitcoin, including private equity and venture capital firms. “This is the one getting a lot of attention because of the criminal element.”
The area of law that Bitcoin touches on — financial services and payment regulation, VanBrackle’s specialty — is poised to grow as states such as California, Virginia, Texas and New York debate how to regulate the digital currency (money transfer is governed by state law). Manatt is banking on that growth to help drive its expansion in Washington, where the firm is beefing up its financial services regulatory staff.
“We plan to have one of the nation’s largest, highest profile practices in regulatory issues associated with Bitcoin,” said Ivan Wasserman, the new head of Manatt’s D.C. office.
Manatt, a 49-year-old California-based firm with 400 lawyers in eight offices in the United States and Mexico, is best known for its West Coast banking and entertainment law practices. Founding partner Lee Phillips represents celebrities such as Barbra Streisand and Burt Bacharach. Though the firm has deep roots in the District — Wasserman’s predecessor John Ray was a D.C. City Council member in the 1980s and 1990s, and founding partner Charles Manatt chaired the Democratic National Committee in the early 1980s — the firm’s presence here beyond that has ebbed and flowed over the years.
But over the past decade, Manatt has been steadily laying the groundwork for sustained growth in New York and Washington, and is now renewing its effort to make D.C. a major priority. Many of the firm’s clients are in the health-care, digital media, financial services and energy industries — what the firm calls its “core industry sectors” — which are all facing more regulation by the federal government.
“When we look at D.C., that is where we tie the regulatory into the core industry sectors from an advocacy, legislative and public policy perspective,” said Bill Quicksilver, Manatt chief executive and managing partner.
Wasserman said he plans to increase the firm’s D.C. roster of 45 attorneys and professionals to between 60 and 80 in the next several years. Growth will be concentrated in government contracting, financial services regulation and government relations. Since the firm hired the head of Steptoe & Johnson’s lobbying group, Jim Bonham, in 2011, it has seen lobbying revenue jump from $2 to $3 million.
“We’re not looking to be a full-service litigation or corporate shop in D.C.,” Wasserman said. “We have those very well covered in California. In D.C., we’re primarily focused on health care, consumer protection, environmental, financial services and general government relations.”
Data security — advising companies on how to deal with data breaches — and advertising law will continue to be priorities as well, he said.
“Having a strong D.C. presence can differentiate national firms from each other,” Wasserman said. “Regulatory practices tend to be less impacted by the ups and downs of the economy.”
The firm is also staffing its consulting units with key Washington hires. In November, Michael Camuñez, a former Obama trade policy adviser, was tapped to co-chair the firm’s consulting subsidiary, ManattJones, which advises companies on how to do business in Latin America. And last week, the firm announced that Jon Glaudemans, a senior executive from Avalere Health and Aetna, joined Manatt Health Solutions, the division of the firm that advises companies on health-care issues such as how to use technology to cut costs.
“We are increasingly becoming a professional services firm that combines legal and public policy and industry savvy of both attorneys and consultants,” Quicksilver said.