During a typical week, John Merrigan shuttles up and back to Capitol Hill, working the phones and power alleys of Washington on behalf of Fortune 500 companies, charging more than $300 for an hour of his expertise.
But lately Merrigan has been giving away big chunks of his time, and the people he lobbies hardest aren't politicians or power brokers -- they are dozens of his partners in the law offices of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand. Merrigan is a volunteer in Vice President Gore's presidential campaign and he is fighting in what has become one of the most active battle theaters in the war for the presidency: law firms.
"June and May were extremely heavy periods, so I needed to take a couple hours every day to catch people on the phone," said Merrigan. "It was constant."
And it was lucrative. Merrigan and other members of the bar across the country helped make lawyers one of the largest sources of contributors not only to Gore's campaign but to those of his rivals.
Since January, more than 4,100 attorneys added $3.1 million to Gore's coffers, according to recent campaign finance reports. Lawyers for four law firms, including Washington lobbying firms Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld; and Patton Boggs, were among his top 10 contributors, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush's single largest source of contributions was Houston's Vinson & Elkins, whose attorneys came up with nearly $185,000; three other firms also made the top 10. Overall, he took in checks from roughly 3,000 attorneys totaling more than $2.2 million.
Democrat Bill Bradley's campaign pocketed more than $1.5 million from 2,300 lawyers, and featured two large Chicago firms -- Winston & Strawn and Mayer, Brown & Platt -- among his top 10 sources of contributions. Elizabeth Dole collected her biggest bundles -- $36,500, triple any other single source -- from her husband's firm, Verner Liipfert.
Much of the vice president's popularity in the legal profession can be traced to two key sources: Washington's K Street establishment and trial attorneys across the country. Nationwide, Gore enjoys an advantage over Bush among lawyers thanks to trial attorneys who are mobilizing to ensure that Bush is defeated.
That's because Bush infuriated trial lawyers -- and became a hero to corporations -- by crusading to curb lawsuit abuse while governor of Texas. Once known as the state where juries awarded astronomical sums in personal injury suits, Texas has aggressively curtailed what critics call "jackpot justice" through a series of reforms and legislation, all of them ardently supported by Bush. One bill capped damage awards, another made it harder for attorneys to "shop" for sympathetic courts.
"There's no question in my mind that this guy is going to do everything he can to assist business interests against our clients and against us," said Ken Mohlberg, a trial lawyer and Democratic activist.
"The fact that 99 percent of us are Democrats will only add fuel to the fire," he said.
Nonetheless, Gore can't take the considerable largess of this profession for granted. Though long considered friendlier to the lawyers than President Clinton, Gore recently riled his longtime allies by supporting a bill to limit the liability of high-tech firms in litigation that might emerge from the year 2000 millennium bug. The measure was cheered by technology companies and could help Gore raise money in Silicon Valley, but it is likely to cost him. Many trial lawyers say the Y2K bill has them leaning toward the Bradley campaign.
"No one liked it," said Mark Mandell, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. "It's very hard for people to understand and accept. Will they support the vice president? Yes. But there will probably be less support because of that bill, and there is a growing number of lawyers who will do nothing."
Bush has continued to antagonize trial lawyers during the campaign, at one point calling the Y2K bug "the biggest potential ambulance chase of the millennium." The bulk of his support in the legal community comes from large corporate firms, most of them based in Texas.
Vinson Elkins partner Tom Marinis, who grew up near Bush in Midland, Tex., and counts the governor as a friend, helped organize a mini-fund-raising drive, taking aside dozens of his partners for a one-on-one chat and asking each for $1,000.
"It didn't take much of a pitch," Marinis said. "This is a chance for the governor of Texas to be president of the United States and that's good for the state, and what's good for the state is good for this firm."
Many firms effectively hedge their bets by backing a handful of candidates at the same time. At Verner Liipfert, for instance, John Merrigan and other Democratic-leaning lawyers have raised about $70,000 from colleagues and others. Merrigan also helped plan a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser in Washington that netted $3 million.
Down the hall, former Indiana senator Dan Coates is busily planning a golf fund-raiser for friend and presidential hopeful Dan Quayle at a golf course in Maryland. A few floors below, resident rainmaker Robert J. Dole is raising cash for his wife.
And Bush is getting plenty of financial support from a pair of Verner Liipfert partners in Florida who are allies of the candidate's brother, Jeb Bush, the state governor. Plenty of the 30 lawyers in the firm's Houston outpost are expected to back Bush, too.
"There was no plan to coordinate and say "Let's make sure we cover the waterfront," said Coates. "It's a recognition of the fact that many of us have longstanding relationships. I like to say, half in jest, that 11 of my best friends are running for the Republican nomination."
Lawyers as Contributors
The quadrennial flow of cash from law firms to presidential campaigns is once again at full gush. Lawyers are among the top contributors to the Bush, Gore and Bradley campaigns, rivaling far larger corporations in the accounting and banking industries. These totals, garnered from Federal Election Commission filings, show money given by political action committees, executives and their families -- not the firms themselves.
George W. Bush
Vinson & Elkins $184,850 Law firm
Andersen Worldwide 120,450 Accounting
Jenkens & Gilchrist 99,450 Law firm
Enron 86,650 Natural gas
Baker & Botts 82,050 Law firm
Enterprise Leasing 81,000 Car rental
Ernst & Young 72,950 Accounting
Haynes & Boone 72,000 Law firm
American General 71,223 Insurance
Bank of America 70,100 Banking / securities
Ernst & Young $114,200 Accounting
Viacom 69,250 Cable TV / entertainment
BellSouth 66,750 Telephone
Goldman, Sachs 58,750 Securities
Democratic Council 49,750 Pro-Israel
Citigroup 43,750 Insurance / financial
Holland & Knight 42,750 Law firm
Jenner & Block 38,500 Law firm
Akin, Gump 31,500 Law firm
Patton Boggs 30,750 Law firm
Lehman Brothers $80,500 Securities
Citigroup 74,150 Insurance / financial
Goldman, Sachs 65,000 Securities
Merrill Lynch 56,500 Securities
Dean Witter 55,750 Securities
JP Morgan 51,600 Banking
Winston & Strawn 45,750 Law firm
Jeffries & Co. 45,500 Securities
Mayer, Brown &
Platt 44,050 Law firm
Kushner Cos. 40,000 Home builders
SOURCE: Center for Responsive Politics