Law firms’ revolving door turns faster as election draws near

October 14, 2012

As the presidential campaign season enters its final weeks, the race among Washington’s elite law firms to recruit top talent from federal agencies, the White House and congressional staff is heating up.

The revolving door between the city’s major law firms and the federal government is one that is constantly turning, more so in Washington than any other legal market. But the number of attorneys and lobbyists making moves and the hiring frequency are heightened every four years around the time of election, regardless of whether the party in the White House changes.

The cycle typically starts in the spring of election years, when the administration and campaigns begin asking senior advisers — who are often lawyers and lobbyists — to either commit through the November election, or leave by late spring or summer. But with the election now three weeks away, the pace of recruiting is quickening, and will likely reach breakneck speed in the coming months.

“The period before the presidential election is a time when many law firms, trade associations and companies assess the talent pool, their hiring needs and budgets, and reach out to government officials they are potentially interested in,” said Michael Toner, a partner in Wiley Rein’s election law group and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “But it’s November and December when the really intensive negotiations occur. A lot of this gets wrapped up by the winter or early spring after the presidential election. The next six months is prime time for this process.”

Hiring priorities

Law firm hiring managers are tight-lipped about which officials they’re eyeing, and even which agencies they’re most interested in. But the most sought-after officials likely to be on every law firm’s radar are Attorney General Eric Holder, formerly of Covington & Burling, Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Mary L. Schapiro and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski, should they decide to leave.

Who to pursue depends on which practices firms are looking to build or create. Jenner & Block, for example, recently hired Mary Ellen Callahan, former chief privacy officer for the Department of Homeland Security, to start the firm’s new privacy and data protection group. Likewise, a deputy attorney general would top the list for any firm looking to beef up white collar, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and high stakes litigation capabilities.

“You either look for people who fit your existing focus and practices, or you might decide you’re making strategic investments in what you don’t currently do,” said Bob Novick, co-managing partner of WilmerHale. “Every firm is always thinking about those dimensions of their business.”

WilmerHale recently welcomed a wave of new additions, including Stephen Luparello, former vice chairman of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), who joined the firm as a partner last week. FINRA plays a role in regulating brokerage firms and exchange markets. WilmerHale is also staffing up at the associate level. In September, they hired Jeremy Newell, a former lawyer at the Federal Reserve; over the summer, they brought in Blake Roberts from the Obama administration, where he served since 2009 as deputy associate counsel to the president.

Hiring gets riskier

As law firms face rising expenses and flat demand for legal services, bringing in a high-level official is perhaps riskier now than ever before. Unlike a lawyer coming from another law firm — who already has a book of business, and whose revenue figures for the last five years get meticulously reviewed before an offer is made — government officials by definition don’t have clients.

“That is absolutely a concern,” said Tony Pierce, partner in charge of Akin Gump’s D.C. office. “That is why any lateral who joins our firm, whether they come from the government or elsewhere, gets some runway to ramp-up their practice. We team them with a partner or group of partners who either have a client in their field or industry, or have legal expertise pertinent to it . . . and then give them as much marketing and internal support as we can.”

Gone are the days when a firm can pay a seven-figure salary for a government official and not expect them to generate business quickly.

“Once a few years pass and they don’t originate clients, that’d be a problem,” Toner said. “Ten or 20 years ago, more firms would be willing to do that. Now, you typically have to originate significant client revenue if you’re going to get paid at that level.”

Ultimately, snagging a high-profile official is good “get” — and a selling point when courting clients — but it doesn’t dramatically alter the makeup of a large law firm.

“For us, it’s business as usual, though with a little more activity,” Novick said. “While we’re always looking to acquire the best talent, we’re a large firm. One person coming, two people going, it doesn’t really move the needle in our business. We’ll be little different three to four months after the election as we were three to four before, even if we lose 10 people or gain 10 people.”

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for the Capital Business section of The Washington Post. She previously worked at the LA Daily Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Wichita Eagle and the San Mateo County Times.
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