Billy Martin’s brand is scandal.
More specifically, managing scandal. The Washington attorney has advised some of the biggest headline-makers of the past two decades: Monica Lewinsky’s mother during the investigation and impeachment of Bill Clinton, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick on dog-fighting charges, and then-Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) after he was arrested in an airport restroom.
But when Martin started his own law firm nearly two years ago, his duties were decidedly more mundane.
“The single most difficult part was getting the phones turned on,” he said. “You can’t just buy a phone anymore and plug it in, it’s all digital. You have to get the servers set up. We did it all ourselves.”
“We” refers to Martin, his partner Geoff Gitner — with whom he has worked since the 1990s — white collar litigator Kerry Verdi and administrator Maria Dodwell. The group has moved as a unit to every law firm they’ve worked at for the last decade, Martin said, and a month ago added a new member, securities transactional lawyer Edsel Guydon.
The firm, Martin & Gitner, turns two in January. In some ways, the firm, which specializes in civil and criminal litigation and internal investigations, is a big change from Martin’s days in big law at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, Howrey and Dorsey & Whitney. The office houses four lawyers compared to Howrey’s 1,000, and is down the hall from a think tank and the U.N.’s world food program offices, inside a K Street building whose ground floor is Bobby Flay’s burger joint.
But Martin’s brand has stayed the same — minus the overhead of expensive big law real estate, and the accompanying hourly rates. Martin was a high-ranking partner at Howrey at the time the Washington law firm’s partners voted to dissolve in 2011. He joined Dorsey & Whitney for less than a year before founding Martin & Gitner.
“I thought that I would much prefer to bet on myself than on any other law firm to help me in my practice,” he said. “So I convinced my partner Geoff ... We decided to try it. We keep asking ourselves, ‘What took so long?’”
Though Martin is best known for representing athletes and politicians — he represented Allen Iverson during most of his NBA career and Jayson Williams in the shooting death of a limousine driver — the business at his firm is roughly half from celebrities and half from corporations in areas including internal investigations, corporate compliance and defending in class action lawsuits.
“The high-profile cases are the ones that people recognize, but that’s not the bulk of what we do here,” he said. “While I enjoy working with the athletes and it’s very satisfying, I actually enjoy my corporate work doing internal investigations and traveling abroad on some of these [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act] issues. If there is something I could really dig my teeth into, it’d be more of the corporate work.”
A frequent speaker on panels about corporate responsibility and ethics, Martin sells his track record with athletes to win business from companies.
“Part of what I do is try to convince corporate America on these panels that if you get into trouble, just like these athletes, you should call me,” he said.
Martin has become something of a celebrity himself, and when there is big news, a phone call to Martin is often not far behind. He was recently hired by Priscilla Daniels, the widow of Navy Yard shooting victim Arthur Daniels, and is working with Washington personal injury lawyer Peter Grenier to look into what may be a wrongful death suit.
Martin says he owes much of his athlete business to a chance meeting with former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, who he met during the filming of an ABC “Nightline” townhall on gun violence in the District when Martin was a federal prosecutor in D.C.
“I was there representing the U.S. Attorney’s office,” Martin said. “Coach Thompson was there representing Georgetown. We sat beside each other. We had a chance to talk for a couple hours.”
Thompson later introduced Martin to David Falk, the powerful NBA agent who negotiated multi-million-dollar contracts for Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning.
“I persuaded David to hire me for his company,” Falk Agent Management Enterprises, Martin said. “The first athlete from that referral was Allen Iverson.”
From there, he started joining entertainment and sports lawyers associations, eventually meeting the late Gene Upshaw, former head of the NFL Players’ Association, which opened the door for work with the union. Today, Martin is on a short list of lawyers who get called for advice on virtually every major professional sports episode that becomes news — most recently from retired NFL players asking about the settlement the league is negotiating over concussions, and a veteran player on the Miami Dolphins, which has come under fire for bullying.
The calls are also coming from headhunters and big law firms.
“Weekly,” he said. “Firms call me asking if we’d like to join them. I don’t see that as a move we’ll make in the future. We’ve built a good business here. We built it to do something different than a big firm.”
For one, he gets to decide how much to charge. As a partner at large law firms, he billed clients as much as $900 an hour. Now his average hourly rate is around $600.
“The best is yet to come,” he said.