For several hundred members of the Prince George's County Bar Association gathered at the Andrews Air Force Base Officers Club one night last November, the news from County Executive Parris Glendening was even more appreciated than the prime rib.
From that day forward, Glendening said, the county's lawyers could expect more -- and more lucrative -- contracts from his government.
"In the past three years, the county has spent over $3 million on legal business in New York, Baltimore and Washington. There is no reason why most of that business could not have gone to the very able Prince George's attorneys who are familiar with county issues and concerns," he said, to prolonged applause.
As outlined by Glendening, the emphasis on hiring local lawyers was all part of an effort to stimulate the county's economic development. But the new policy also has resulted in a healthy boost to some of the county's most politically active lawyers such as Lance Billingsley, a former chairman of the local Democratic Party, whose firm has earned about $65,000 representing the county's Housing Authority, and Gerard McDonough, a former County Council member who has earned $14,500 representing the newly reconstituted Parking Authority.
"Because the legal community is politically supportive of county government and of Parris politically," said Billingsley, defending Glendening's policy, "I thought it was appropriate that we be considered for the more specialized work. . . . The people who fund government should be given the preference."
Last year Prince George's County spent more than $1 million for legal work, ranging from bond prospectuses to collecting back taxes. With no formal bidding system, guidelines or evaluation system, the process by which the lawyers were chosen is often based on such intangibles as political relationships, party activism and friendship. Critics Call It Patronage
It is no wonder, then, that some critics consider county and municipal legal work a last vestige of patronage in an era that has bound state and local governments with increasingly stringent bidding procedures and spending controls. How that patronage is dispensed can be a surprisingly accurate mirror of the contrasting political styles of Washington area jurisdictions.
While politics in Prince George's County owes much to the freewheeling and contentious tradition of northeastern cities, "the Virginia way" is something quite different -- and so is the dispensing of legal contracts.
In the Virginia suburbs, the most lucrative government contracts are held tightly by a closed circle of law firms that cemented their positions years ago. In some cases, the firms themselves have become institutions in local government. But though the form may be different, the impetus is the same.
"I don't know any appointments made in heaven," said Dexter Odin, the private lawyer hired by the city of Herndon for the past 10 years and the first lawyer to serve as Fairfax County attorney in 1967. "They are indeed made in the political process."
Only in the District of Columbia, where the corporation counsel's office handles virtually all legal work, has politics been largely removed from the awarding of legal work. Even in Montgomery County, whose tradition of good government and propensity for task forces to address every conceivable issue is legendary, a recent study by the school board questioned the lack of oversight in the selection and management of outside legal help.
For unself-conscious rewarding of allies, however, there is no better example than Prince George's.
Asked recently how he decided who would get the contracts in Prince George's, Glendening said: "A good dose of it really, truly, is professionalism. A good dose of it is people we knew. It's impossible to be in public office as long as I have and not to know virtually every leading legal figure."
Shortly after he took office as executive last year, Glendening severed the county's contract for labor negotiations with a Washington law firm that he regarded as too closely tied to his Republican predecessor, Lawrence Hogan. He brought that job in-house and gave another contract held by the Washington firm, defending the county against an employment discrimination claim, to a prominent Silver Spring firm, Linowes and Blocher.
He then turned over more county contracts to local lawyers, many of them campaign supporters.
One of those contracts was awarded to Ronald Schiff, a Glendening campaign manager, who earned $33,000 last year as people's zoning counsel, monitoring all zoning hearings to ensure a complete record. Another went to the firm headed by Peter F. O'Malley, a longtime Democratic strategist and powerbroker, that was hired to help the county recover some of the millions paid for workers' compensation when the county is not at fault.
Glendening also assigned two lucrative jobs to a Republican, outgoing county attorney Robert Ostrom, who had joined a firm headed by several politically active Democrats. Ostrom was paid $98,700 last year for representing the county before the Metro board and handling part of the county's industrial revenue-bond work.
Glendening conceded that political connections may have played some role in his selections but added, "I wouldn't say it was the major consideration."
It is a way of doing business that lawyers in both political parties in Prince George's endorse.
"In some cases, because of the sensitivity of the job, it was felt that the administration would like to have its own person," said Ostrom, who changed several legal contracts during his tenure. "Plus you give an elected official a chance to give a contract, and that's inviting as well."
Mel Schneider, an Ostrom appointee who lost his assignment representing the county's personnel board when the administration changed in 1982, said, "It's an accepted thing. . . . I wasn't disappointed." Long Established Relationships
The volatile political world of Prince George's is a far cry from Fairfax, where one firm, McCandlish, Lillard, Rust and Church, has represented numerous county agencies since the 1950s and last year was paid almost 20 percent of the entire budget allocated for outside counsel.
"The relationships have been established for so long, we don't hear much about competition," said Randolph Church Jr., who has represented county agencies for almost two decades.
This year for the first time two firms will share in much of the work. The reason: McCandlish recently split up, merging with two existing firms.
Sometimes in Virginia the politics is less subdued. In Fairfax City, the city's legal counsel bounced between two firms for nearly two decades, depending on the political faction in power.
"You could be city attorney, and if the administration changed you were out," said Robert J. McCandlish Jr., whose firm represented Fairfax City during two administrations. "That's the way politics is played."
On the state level, Democrat Gerald L. Baliles became Virginia attorney general two years ago and promptly fired 52 of the 59 private lawyers hired by his Republican predecessor to handle the state's lucrative highway condemnation work.
Many Republicans were outraged by what they called a blatant show of political patronage: The Democratic appointments included two former state senators, the son of a former state senator, a former state delegate and a district Democratic Party chairman.
But Democrats countered that Baliles was merely continuing the political tradition of past administrations -- a tradition that has labeled highway work one of the biggest political plums in the state for private attorneys. Baliles' Republican predecessor, J. Marshall Coleman, had likewise replaced most of the private lawyers hired by the Democrat who held the office before him.
Most municipal officials defend a need for flexibility in selecting outside lawyers, arguing that there is no objective way to evaluate the quality of legal work. And, they add, with governments becoming the targets for increasing numbers of complex and expensive lawsuits, the stakes are too high to lose cases because of inferior legal work.
"The reality is, if you were having major surgery, are you going to go to the bid list and pick your surgeon?" said Tom Fess, Montgomery County ombudsman and staff assistant to the Montgomery County Board of Education. "The whole point of it is to defend your point of view -- to win." Some Guidelines Now Imposed
However, many jurisdictions are taking tougher looks at the way they select outside legal counsel. Both Maryland and Virginia have imposed some guidelines for hiring legal advisers, although in most cases, legal work is exempt from the tighter regulations imposed on other service procurements.
Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs, like officials in Prince George's, was frustrated with the inability of smaller firms to obtain bond work from the state, so he instituted a selection process evaluating firms on a point system. Extra points are awarded to local or minority-owned firms.
"It is important not only to be fair," said Sachs, "but to give the illusion of fairness," he said. But he has had mixed results. Few minority firms have been awarded contracts and two of his selections have been challenged by losers.
Glendening also argued that one motivation for turning over most of Prince George's County's legal work to local firms was to allow more women and minorities to get a foothold in the more lucrative specialties that are often closed to them.
But of the 30 contracts or appointments that the county held with private lawyers in fiscal 1984, according to records supplied by the county's Office of Law, only one is with a black lawyer, and two were awarded to women, whose fees were among the lowest paid by the county for legal work. The largest fees still went to the Baltimore firms and to the Silver Spring-based firm of Linowes and Blocher.
Attorneys who have successfully obtained government work say that the pressures of politics often do not subside once the selection is made.
"The relationships are so fragile, you never have a feeling of security," said Odin.
"When you're appointed, it's because a faction identified with you," he added, "and that can boil down to two powerful people . . . . If you start rendering legal opinions to satisfy the power, the others will sense it."
Odin and others who do government legal work say it is a constant tug of war to separate politically popular decisions from the legally proper decision.
"You try not to become part of the political process," said William D. Roeder, the private lawyer who has held a contract with Fairfax City for the past six years and is a partner of Wyatt Durrette, a potential Republican candidate for governor next year. "But it's not always easy. It's not going to mean you're the most popular. If it means you lose the job, you take that risk."
But despite the vagaries of the selection process and the pressures of satisfying a public client, lawyers say, municipal work is eagerly sought after and will continue to be. The prestige, the reliabilty of a paycheck backed by a government, sometimes the publicity, make local governments the clients of choice for many lawyers.
"It's what I like to do," Ostrom said, "represent clients, pay my bills and enjoy life."