How newcomer firm Cooley is forging a path in Washington’s crowded market


Ryan Naftulin, managing partner at Cooley’s District office. The firm, which had 30 attorneys in D.C. in 2005, now has about 85. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR CAPITAL BUSINESS)
February 17, 2013

There is a new law firm on the block.

Cooley, the Silicon Valley-based law firm best known for technology and life sciences work, moved into the Warner Building in downtown D.C. last month — a space once occupied by Howrey, the esteemed Washington law firm that dissolved and filed for bankruptcy in 2011.

The move is more than a little symbolic. If Howrey was the quintessential Washington law firm, building its roots around the federal government, Cooley represents a different kind of law firm in the nation’s capital, approaching the competitive legal industry here with a different set of goals in mind.

Cooley has no designs on becoming an all-purpose regulatory law firm that can navigate every federal agency under the sun, which was the formula for many home-grown D.C. firms. There are some legal specialties tied to Washington that aren’t on Cooley’s to-do list: a First Amendment practice, a Federal Election Commission group or a traditional environmental practice focused on coal and railroads, to name a few. Nor does Cooley have a federal lobbying group, a staple at many Washington firms.

“Our thesis is more specific,” Ryan Naftulin, partner in charge of the firm’s D.C. office. “Our goal isn’t to become a monolithic D.C. regulatory firm.”

Instead, Cooley credits much of its growth in the region to getting “in” with technology giants in their early days, and continuing to counsel the companies as their legal worries evolve. The firm, for example, has represented global tech company Nvidia since the early 1990s when the company was going through funding cycles and developing its intellectual property portfolio. Cooley later handled the company’s initial public offering in 1999, and continues to represent Nvidia as the company deals with more sophisticated legal issues, such as how to protect intellectual property rights abroad and deal with trade issues with foreign-based manufacturing. The firm has also handled IPOs for Yelp, Zynga, Amgen and Genentech, and defended Facebook in patent litigation brought by Yahoo after Facebook’s IPO.

A start in life sciences

Cooley is currently representing District-based daily deals site LivingSocial in a class action lawsuit that claims the expiration dates on LivingSocial vouchers violate laws that prohibit expiration dates of less than five years on gift certificates. The company last year agreed to a $4.5 million settlement, and up to an additional $3 million in attorney fees.

Cooley, which was founded in San Francisco in 1920, made its early moves in cities that many large U.S. law firms considered smaller markets: San Diego, Boulder, Colo., and — at the time — Palo Alto. The firm made a name for itself in the life sciences, solidifying a niche at the intersection of patent and commercial law. That meant representing the spectrum of buyers and sellers — universities, pharmaceutical companies, software makers — that have an interest in commercializing intellectual property such as manufacturing techniques for drugs.

Cooley opened an office in Reston in 1999 at a time the Northern Virginia technology hub “was looking like a mini Palo Alto,” Naftulin said. Then in 2005, as the firm’s clients were increasingly interacting with the federal government, the firm opened an office in the District to accommodate that demand. Between 2005 and 2011, Cooley grew gradually, inching up from about 30 attorneys in the District to 50. But since mid-2011, the firm has jumped to 85 lawyers from 55. Cooley now has about 150 attorneys in the Washington region, making it one of the biggest non-native law firms to enter the D.C. market after the 1970s.

“The market is increasingly embracing the notion that innovative companies are a critical component of the economy and that there is a huge opportunity to be at the intersection of that segment of the economy and Washington,” Naftulin said.

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for Capital Business, which she joined in 2011. She was previously a reporter at the Daily Journal in Los Angeles, covering LA civil courts and labor and employment law.
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