Law firms with public policy and lobbying practices are gearing up for anticipated overhauls in how the nation pays for multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects and regulates financial services. They are hiring lawmakers and top congressional staffers who lack law degrees but bring connections and expertise.
"Clients want government relations, communications and all forms of public-issues management, all the things you need to do a political campaign on an issue," said Scott Segal, co-head of Houston-based Bracewell & Giuliani's federal government relations and advocacy practice from the firm's Washington office.
In September, the firm hired former four-term Republican Rep. Susan Molinari, who is not a lawyer, as a senior principal in its government relations and strategy section in Washington.
"It only makes sense to bring in talented people who don't have a law degree," said Segal. "We provide traditional legal services but also lobbying and public policy advocacy."
Molinari, who served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said law firm clients affected by such things as how the country finances road and bridge building while gas tax revenues drop, or the emerging sentiment for overhauling regulation of banks, require lobbying, policy analysis and communications expertise.
"Public policy and public affairs people sit in the meetings with lawyers. I think it is the wave of the future to provide the coordinated services the people in this town need," Molinari said. "If there is one thing I know, it's how Congress works. It is not that the lawyers have no clue, but I can see around a corner they have not been around."
Stuart Pape, managing partner of Washington-based Patton Boggs, said the firm has about 30 professionals who work with lawyers on public policy and lobbying.
"You don't have to have a law degree to be smart and capable," said Pape. "This may be a Washington phenomena because here we have a lot of clients with problems that are adjacent to the law. It is becoming increasingly common with firms that have public policy practices and do a lot of regulatory work to hire people who know their way around the bureaucracy."
Patton Boggs recently hired Vincent Frillici, who began his career working on the finance side of the 1996 Clinton presidential campaign and has worked in campaign fundraising and business development ever since.
"I see myself as a translator of the very complex language of policy and legislative prescriptions into understandable terms," Frillici said. "Being the one on the [conference] call who asks for something to be explained is mostly for me, but if I don't understand it, the lawmaker who has to explain that back home will have a hard time understanding it. Law firms that don't have people who bring a political viewpoint into the conversation -- their clients miss something."
George Kieffer, a partner at Los Angeles-based Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and chairman of the firm's government and regulatory policy division, said incorporating professionals who are not attorneys requires changing some basics, such as billing by the hour.
The firm does public policy work in Washington and at the state level in California and New York with offices in Sacramento, Calif., and Albany, N.Y.
"A client can ask one law firm to examine a problem and get billed for a hundred hours of research, or they can go to another firm and talk to a specialist who is not a lawyer, but in an hour [the client] understands the problem and has a strategy the law firm never would have devised with any amount of legal research. So what is that hour worth?" Kieffer said. "It certainly is worth much more than the one hour the conversation required."
Manatt Phelps recently hired Arthur Chan, who until recently was the top staffer to Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee but is not an attorney.
"There is going to be a huge transportation bill within the next two years, and Art Chan knows the lawmakers and lobbyists and bureaucrats who will shape that bill," Kieffer said. "That viewpoint is hugely valuable."
Pape of Patton Boggs said that firms that want to bring in professionals who are not lawyers have to consider how they will advance in their careers, just as a first-year associate is clear on what is required to gradually move up to senior associate and partner.
"What is the equivalent path for a person who is not a lawyer? You have to give these people a career path, which a lot of firms have a problem with," Pape said. "If the management grudgingly hires an expert but never stop thinking of them as second-class citizens because they don't have a law degree, that I guarantee will not work."