Last week’s news of legendary Washington law and lobby firm Patton Boggs’s merger with law firm Squire Sanders marked the end of an era. The lobbying industry, once dominated by a handful of big, powerful personalities, has given way to a bigger, broader and more grass-roots business that has more voices — and must influence more decision makers — than ever before.
Here, we highlight some of the lobby firms that are shaking things up, either by starting anew, transforming their structure to do business differently or experimenting with new ways to broker change through social media and other outlets.
Firm: Franklin Square Group.
Co-founders: Matt Tanielian and Josh Ackil.
Size: Five people.
2013 publicly reported lobbying
revenue: $3.4 million.
In short: Tanielian and Ackil came from the technology world (Cisco and the Information Technology Industry
Council, respectively), and built their own tech lobby shop, modeled after the Silicon
Valley clients they represent.
For the first three years after starting their own business in 2008, Matt Tanielian and Josh Ackil literally worked side by side — at first in a glorified storage closet, and later in a small conference room with a single table.
Today, they have separate offices, though they were resistant to do so for fear that it would go against the flat structure and ethos of collaboration they say are at the core of their firm.
As tech lobbyists, they see themselves as the bridge between “disruptive” Silicon Valley companies and the Washington establishment. Many young, fast-moving start-ups are more concerned with getting their product out quickly than they are with the regulatory hurdles they may face later, and it is Tanielian’s and Ackil’s job to alert them to potential obstacles in Washington down the road — and offer themselves as advocates who can help them navigate what may come.
“We approach it like, ‘Maybe not tomorrow, but when you’re ready to do it, do it in a way that fits your culture,’” Tanielian said of pitching to potential clients.
In addition to representing now-established industry giants such as Google, Intel and Apple, they advise up-and-coming companies that may not necessarily offer a technology product or service, but use technology to bring something new to the marketplace, such as the car service Uber and Square, a provider of point-of-sale and credit-card processing services.
All five of the firm’s professionals have something similar to stock options, a setup they modeled after the compensation structure favored by many tech companies.
“It’s the stock option model,” Tanielian said. “Everyone has an investment in the organization as a whole succeeding. If the company does well, you do well.”
Firm: Chamber Hill
Sims and Jennifer Bell.
Size: Six people.
2013 publicly reported
Specialty: Domestic policy.
In short: Bell and Sims left larger law and lobby firms
to start their own shop.
When lobbyist Jennifer Bell started working for her client — the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, an Arlington nonprofit created by distillers that works to prevent underage drinking and driving — her first thought was not to try to get a bill through the House or Senate.
Instead, she went to two congressmen and asked them to tweet about the issue.
On May 22, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) did just that, tweeting, “May is ‘Your Traffic Safety Month.’ Talk to your kids about safe driving. @IKnowEverything” — the Twitter account the foundation created for its campaign to encourage teens to drive safely.
“It’s not straight-up lobbying,” Bell said. “Yes, you’re asking a member to take a position, but that’s not something you’d normally see in a legislative and policy environment.”
Bell and Michaela Sims co-founded Chamber Hill Strategies in October 2012 with a different approach to the business of lobbying — a firm that made decisions quickly, had few layers of management, and where they had complete control over which clients they worked with, and how. It often includes using alternative ways to influence lawmakers and the public that are not considered traditional lobbying, such as social media and coalition-building.
Both Bell and Sims came with 15 years experience in the field — Bell used to work at Patton Boggs and Sims was with consulting firm Bockorny Group.
Chamber Hill Strategies, which is a Small Business Administration-certified women-owned business, is not a “one-stop shop” that many large lobby and law firms advertise themselves as, and the founders like it that way. They often help clients farm out some work to PR firms or other professionals if they don’t have the expertise themselves. They have the freedom to experiment with projects that may not be profitable right away, which would be a harder sell at a larger firm that is concerned with overhead costs.
For example, the duo launched a daily e-mail newsletter called PolicyCrush, a roundup of the latest health policy developments. It began in 2012 with 20 test users, and now has 5,000 paying subscribers. They declined to say how much the missive generates.
“Large law firms don’t want you to spend too much time on things that are not billable because it doesn’t make money,” Bell said. “The activity we did was truly not billable for a long time. It now has revenue associated with it, but it would’ve been non-billable product development they wouldn’t have signed off on.”
Firm: Holland & Knight.
Leader: Rich Gold, head of public policy.
Size: 76 people.
2013 publicly reported
lobbying revenue: $17.9
Specialty: Regulatory and public policy, including representing local governments and coalitions.
In short: It is the first lobbying group within a national law firm to stop requiring lobbyists to track their hours.
In 2012, Holland & Knight’s public policy group — one of the top 10 in Washington based on revenue — ditched the billable hour model, becoming the first major U.S. law firm to attempt the change. It meant that lobbyists at the firm no longer had to keep track of their hours in six-, 12- or 15-minute intervals and charge clients based on the amount of time they logged for a matter — as is standard practice at most law firms.
The move immediately transformed the way lobbyists did their work, Gold said.
“Tracking time changes the way you serve clients,” he said. “When you’re always focused on how to allocate that 0.1 or 0.2 amount of time, you’re not as in the moment. By getting rid of the function of having to track your time and enter it everyday into a computer system, you’re more freed up to focus on ‘What do I need to do to advance the game for this client today?’ as opposed to focusing on the administrative task.”
That means not having to worry about how many people to put on a client matter for fear that their collective hourly billing might surpass the monthly retainer the client is paying, Gold said.
“If we have to worry everyone who gets on a [client] phone call is going to bill time for that call, I’m less likely to put four or five people on the call, because if I do that, I could blow the fixed fee for the month in five days,” he said. “But the way we now work, we can just look at, ‘Okay, who do we need to put on this call to give the client the best advice,’ not what will fit under the retainer when we enter the time.”
Firm: Policy Resolution Group, subsidiary of law firm Bracewell & Guiliani.
Founding partners: Scott Segal, Paul Nathanson, E. Dee Martin, Ed Krenik and Frank Maisano.
Size: 15 people.
2013 publicly reported lobbying revenue: $5 million.
Specialty: Policy, regulation and communications in the energy and environment industries.
In short: The group is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a law firm, a relatively unusual arrangement that allows lobbyists and other non-lawyer professionals a better path to management positions.
In 2011, the Policy Resolution Group spun off to become its own business unit — a subsidiary of the law firm it was once part of, Bracewell & Guiliani.
The move was one firm’s attempt to solve a structural problem that has long plagued law firms that got into the lobbying business: how to recruit and integrate non-lawyer lobbyists, consultants and communications specialists. Lobbying, which is typically done on a fixed fee, doesn’t jibe well with hourly billing, which is still how most big law firms charge clients. Lobbyists have been known to shun working for law firms for that reason, and because it is difficult at many law firms for non-attorneys to become partner and share in the firm’s wealth.
Having a separate subsidiary allows non-lawyer lobbyists and professionals to rise to a position that is equivalent to partner, and that helps recruit the best people, firm leaders said.
“We have something going on that the market for talent is interested in,” Segal said.
The group also has more flexibility to take chances on new services.
“We’ve been able to customize packages for clients that are beyond what the typical law firm-based government relations shops and communications shop can offer,” Segal said.
That includes advising on congressional investigations and strategic communications, including crisis management.
“When you have all those pistons working, you have a much healthier engine,” Segal said. “A lot of our competitors have not been willing to take chances in the diversification of services they offer.”