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A Playful Change of Venue

Venable lawyers, used to arguing to judges and juries, resolve their bocce disputes objectively with a tape measure.
Venable lawyers, used to arguing to judges and juries, resolve their bocce disputes objectively with a tape measure. (By David Murray -- The Washington Post)
By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007

When Venable, a District law firm, renovated the old Hecht's department store in Penn Quarter four years ago, one of the things it created on the historic building's roof was, of all things, a bocce court.

The idea was to bring people together from all over the firm -- associates, partners, office staff -- to bond over a friendly game that dates back thousands of years. It's a simple sport: Points are scored by whoever tosses or rolls softball-size balls (called bocces) closest to a smaller ball (called a pallino).

The firm's annual tournament, now in its fourth year, has a bracket that whittles 32 two-person teams down to the championship round this Thursday.

While Venable thinks highly of its bocce court and uses it as a recruiting tool -- its Web site boasts, "To our knowledge, Venable is the only firm with its own rooftop bocce court" -- the firm's priorities still favor client business over the tournament.

Robert Smith, a senior legislative adviser at Venable, seems to understand that fact as a matter of course, which is why he wasn't complaining much about being forced to go it alone last week against Venable lawyers Andrew Bigart and George Constantine.

It did not look good for his now one-man team, called Barone Sanitation, a reference to a front company in "The Sopranos." "It's how Tony Soprano gets his W-2," Smith said. He lost the first game. He needed to win two in a row to advance. Smith did not indicate that he was nervous, perhaps owing to his rigorous preparation. "I trained all week at the Capital Grille," he said.

Arguments sometimes break out during the tournament, particularly when the matchups feature lawyers. "Well, we are a law firm," spokesman Charles Wilkins said. Ted Ramirez, a Venable partner and this year's commissioner, joked that the arguing sometimes takes place in 12-point Times New Roman, the preferred typeface of legal jousting.

Some teams talk trash more than others. "Some people won't stop talking," Ramirez said. But arguments over whose bocce is closest to the pallino are solved easily, precisely and generally without malice -- not by a jury or a judge, but by a tape measure.

Smith's matchup against Bigart and Constantine was mostly quiet. Smith could not be heard bragging after he won the second game, 8-2. Or after he won the third game, 8-3 -- marking an astonishing one-man victory that advanced Barone Sanitation into the late stages of the tournament.

After the win, Smith sounded very much like the Washington Wizards' Gilbert Arenas does after a big performance. He purposely deflected the spotlight. He did not brag that he did all the work himself. Instead, he said he was happy for his team and happy for his firm's legislative and government Affairs group, of which he is a member. "It's group pride," he said.

Smith was wearing sunglasses, so it was difficult to know whether he was winking.

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