Roscoe C. Howard Jr., the former U.S. attorney in Washington, realized not long ago that interviewing for law firm partnerships was taking a toll. The breakfasts at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, the lunches at Ten Penh and the Caucus Room, and the dinners at the Palm and the Capital Grille were adding up -- on his waistline.
"All you got to do is look at my suits," said Howard, who this month joined the year-old D.C. office of California's Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP after meeting with more than a dozen other law firms. "They used to fit better."
After three years of belt-tightening, law firms are hotly competing again for lawyers who can defend executives charged with fraud or understand engineering and other highly technical fields.
Securities law, once considered dull by lawyers in more glamorous practices, now has high status in an era of corporate scandals. And, with the boom in technology, firms are also looking for lawyers who understand both the intricacies of intellectual property law and complicated technologies like the biochemistry involved in making drugs -- and who can then simplify it for a jury.
From K Street to Capitol Hill, those lawyers are busily negotiating for more money, fancier titles and corner offices with picturesque views, according to local lawyers and the headhunters paid to lure top legal talent.
"Things are loosening up," said longtime D.C. legal recruiter Jacquelyn Finn of Finn and Associates.
Lavish wining and dining of the most sought-after recruits is a tradition at law firms, but it is a marked change for lawyers who toiled in government agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, where they are generally barred from accepting meals worth more than $20.
An SEC lawyer said he and his colleagues, whose government experience suddenly makes them highly desirable, are getting calls from law firms almost daily. While SEC lawyers in the past two years have gotten substantial pay boosts -- more than 10 percent in some cases -- private law firms easily can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more a year.
Partners in law firms generally receive a share of the profits each year after expenses such as rent and employee salaries. At the city's biggest firms, pay ranges between $500,000 and $1.6 million a year, according to a survey last year by Legal Times -- with compensation on the higher end for firms based in New York or Los Angeles.
Just two years ago, Thomas V. Sjoblom was the only lawyer doing securities work in the Washington office of Chadbourne & Parke LLP, an old-line New York law firm, when he left the SEC after nearly 20 years. The firm since has hired 14 more lawyers to work on securities cases in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles. Sjoblom is helping defend former HealthSouth Corp. chief executive Richard M. Scrushy, who is charged with leading a multibillion-dollar accounting fraud at the hospital chain.
"I think where you are in your career, if you're really enjoying yourself and can afford to keep going at that compensation level, I think you will," Sjoblom said. He watched some of his SEC colleagues struggle with paying their children's college tuition. But "at some point you've got to say . . . 'I need to take care of myself and my family.' "
He put his old SEC trial skills to use last year in an 11-day hearing on the government's efforts to freeze millions of dollars worth of Scrushy's assets. Sjoblom convinced the judge to lift the freeze, in part because of his familiarity with similar cases and legal concepts during his time at the SEC.
But for the hundreds of lawyers who have departed the SEC in the last few years, the agency is managing to fill its ranks with mid-level lawyers from the private sector, drawn by interesting cases, the SEC's increasingly high public profile, new pay raises, and the chance to pick up experience that will be invaluable if they return to private practice, according to current and former SEC officials. The SEC employs about 3,100 people, according to its Web site.
For Roscoe Howard, a former University of Kansas law professor who spent almost three years as the District's top federal prosecutor, the attraction of Sheppard Mullin was the chance to build a new white-collar practice on the East Coast.
Howard joined Sheppard Mullin on June 1 with Mark E. Nagle, who had headed the civil division of the U.S. attorney's office and helped secure an $87 million settlement in an overbilling case against a health care company. Both lawyers said their time in the government gives them insight into how prosecutors make decisions. They stressed that in their job interviews.
"Mark and I have both made a living at taking corporations and turning them inside out," Howard said. "Now we're going at it from the other side."
Demand for legal specialties can be cyclical. But lawyers and recruiters say class-action lawsuits and prosecutions of executives aren't going away soon. Cracking down on corporate abuses "has become something of a priority for many, many U.S. attorneys and agencies, and that has in turn created many more business opportunities," said Abbe D. Lowell, another Chadbourne partner who joined last year from a large Los Angeles-based firm. "Clients, companies and lawyers have not even fully plumbed all the ramifications of the new laws."
The boom in securities-fraud lawyers reflects a big change in practicing law in Washington, said recruiter Stephen Nelson of McCormick Group Inc. in Arlington.
"It's much more focused on high-stakes kinds of things, where if you're not ready or if you get bad legal advice, the company could be destroyed," Nelson said.
Another legal specialty much in demand involves serious, big-money disputes over intellectual property, such as patents on billion-dollar drugs and popular toys.
"Probably the most sought-after and hardest to find are patent litigators," said veteran D.C. legal recruiter Charles W. Garrison of Garrison & Sisson Inc. "That's the piece everybody wants."
Such candidates are difficult to find in part because they generally have to combine two very different kinds of skills, lawyers said. "You're essentially a translator of two languages," science and law, said Michael R. Dzwonczyk. He is a former research chemist and lawyer who moved from the D.C. office of Pennsylvania's Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP to the intellectual-property boutique firm Sughrue Mion PLLC last year.
In one of the bigger local moves this year, patent litigators Mark G. Paulson and Paul L. Sharer left the local offices of Pillsbury Winthrop LLP, a technology specialist firm, in April for the Washington office of one of the world's biggest law firms, Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP.
More than a half-dozen junior lawyers, paralegals and office assistants went with them. Paulson said he and Sharer seriously considered three offers from large national firms before selecting Mayer Brown for its reach in Europe and Asia, where disputes over software piracy and counterfeit goods are brewing. Mayer Brown's presence in China in particular is growing under former Clinton administration trade representative Michael Kantor and Deborah M. Lehr, who handled trade negotiations with China and Hong Kong during part of the Clinton administration, Paulson said.
"Think about the amount you have to invest to get a drug off the ground," said Paulson, who has chemistry and law degrees. "There's just so much money at stake" that suing to protect intellectual property rights "becomes a necessary part of the business."
That's why the old-line Washington law firm Arnold & Porter LLP has been looking for intellectual-property litigators to join its London office for more than a year.
Last month, the firm finally snared Clive Thorne, a star litigator in Britain who for more than two decades has handled cases such as the one between Tyco Toys Inc., a New Jersey company that makes the Magic 8-Ball, and the Danish toymaker LEGO Group over the design of plastic-brick building toys that both make. Thorne represented Tyco, which LEGO sued. The lawsuit spanned several British Commonwealth countries and became an important case in the history of industrial design. An appeals court eventually decided in favor of Tyco, invalidating some of Lego's designs.
Thorne, who said he was spurred to try something new at this stage in his life, starts his new job Sept. 1.
"I can think of 10 other leading intellectual property lawyers in London who have joined U.S. firms over the course of the past two or three years," Thorne said. "It's a pretty seismic shift, isn't it? And I'm sure there will be others."
S. Lee Narrow, the American who heads Arnold & Porter's London office, said he expects that Thorne will work with pharmaceutical and telecommunications clients seeking to stop the misuse of the drugs and devices that their scientists have developed.
"There are a limited number of people who can do this," Narrow said.
Thorne said that in recent years he had been contacted by longtime acquaintances working for other firms, by headhunters and even received cold calls from recruiters and partners he had never met trying to convince him to leave the large British law firm where he started.
And, offering a tip for potential employers seeking to poach British lawyers, Thorne said some of the recruiting methods common in the United States left something to be desired.
"Probably the English psyche doesn't like cold-calling," he said.