Law firms dominating campaign contributions to Obama

November 20, 2011

Big law is heavily favoring President Obama in campaign contributions, pouring twice as much money into the president’s re-election campaign than into the four leading Republican candidates combined.

Obama has received $4.1 million from lawyers and law firms compared with the $1.7 million that Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have received collectively, according to Federal Election Commission filings analyzed by the government watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics.

“The legal industry as a whole has been a traditional place for Democrats to turn to,” said Michael Beckel, the center’s spokesman. “Obama is not unique in that respect. If you look back, about 70 percent of the money the legal industry donates within a particular cycle benefits Democrats opposed to Republicans. Some of that goes back to [Republican] candidates touting tort reform,” making it harder to sue.

Beyond personal giving, campaign finance experts said no other industry has bundled more money for Obama than lawyers. Bundlers are people who, after reaching their individual contribution limit, solicit and “bundle” contributions from friends, family and associates. More than a fifth of Obama’s bundlers — 78 out of 358, the largest percentage compared to any other profession — are lawyers at some of the biggest law firms in the world, including Skadden, Winston & Strawn, DLA Piper and Sidley Austin (the Chicago firm where both Obama and Michelle Obama formerly worked as associates). Obama is the only candidate to voluntarily release the names of his bundlers.

Lawyers and law firms have raised at least $9.9 million through bundling, more than any other sector. The securities and investment sector comes in second, having raised at least $9.4 million that way.

Next year marks the first presidential election since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United began allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political candidates. The fact that corporate lawyers often have the deepest pockets means they could wield more influence in this election than ever before.

“We fully expect to see this group pony up money to super PACs,” Beckel said. “When you’re talking about lawyers, unions and Hollywood being traditional sources of big money for Democrats, the new campaign finance landscape means these same resources are likely to be funding the newest largest super PACs as well.”

Lawyers are also among the most generous donors to Obama’s re-election campaign by another important measure: more than a third of Obama’s 20 biggest contributors in terms of individual organizations (corporations and universities via their PACs and employees) are law firms — the same law firms where many of his bundlers work. Law firms make up seven out of Obama’s top 20 corporate contributors, giving a collective $403,356.

Law firms play a far smaller role in financing the campaigns of the four leading Republican candidates, FEC records show. Neither Cain nor Paul count any law firms among their largest corporate donors. Romney and Gingrich each list two law firms among their top corporate donors that have contributed $211,350 and $12,500, respectively.

“Part of the reason for that, if we’re talking about Obama, is that [in 2008], the legal community played a larger role in that election because Obama is a lawyer,” said Matthew Sanderson, a political law attorney at Caplin & Drysdale who advises companies, candidates and committees on campaign finance and lobbying laws.“Your network develops as a result of your professional activity. Your network’s network is an extension of that.”

It may also signify a “wait and see” attitude from Republican donors who may be “holding out until there’s a clearer direction on who the nominee will be for the Republican party,” Sanderson said.

Beyond Obama, who has vowed not to accept money from registered lobbyists, law and lobbying firms are contributing big to the 2012 election cycle. As an industry, lawyers and lobbyists rank fourth among all sectors contributing to federal candidates, committees and groups in the 2012. The top three sectors are finance/insurance/real estate, followed by a group made up mostly of retired people, and a group that includes manufacturing, retail and food and beverages. Two thirds of the $57.6 million that lawyers and lobbyists have contributed to this election cycle have gone to Democrats. That figure includes contributions of $200 or more from firms’ political action committees, or PACs, and individuals who list the firms as their employers.

The 10 most generous law and lobbying firms — topped by powerhouses Akin Gump, WPP Group, Patton Boggs, DLA Piper and Kirkland & Ellis — have contributed just over $5.5 million, with 59 percent going to Democrats. Those contributions are from individuals and PACs, not from the firms themselves.

“Lawyers and lobbyists have clients, and they are in some cases trying to build a relationship with a campaign,” Sanderson said. “That’s one way to build a relationship. The reason why [lawyers and lobbyists] are near the top as an industry is because they have an interest in building a relationship not only for their own interests but probably more representing their clients and cultivating it on their behalf.”

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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