SACRAMENTO The best way to explain what Bingham Consulting is may be to describe what it is not.
It is not the lobbying arm of the global law firm. It is not a government relations corps. And it is not a group of backroom fixers, at least not in the sense of a cocktail-swilling, bad-guy eluding George Clooney.
No, according to a group principal, the best label for this cadre of consultants might just be "ghostbusters." Sean Walsh, senior adviser to Bingham McCutchen's chairman, isn't referring to the paranormal fighting skills of the fictional movie characters. But he does liken the big-name consultants' mission to the film team's promise to tackle out-of-this-world problems.
"It's the Ghostbuster thing," he explained in a recent interview. "Who you gonna call?"
Formed in 1999 as a subsidiary of Bingham McCutchen, Bingham Consulting bills itself as a strategist for clients facing big trouble or big opportunities. Getting the wrong kind of attention from the country's attorneys general? The consulting group will search for "resolution" with the states' top public lawyers. Product problem about to turn into a PR nightmare? They'll try to minimize the damage with regulators and constituency groups. Looking to expand business operations in China? They've got an office in Beijing that will help. Call it a concierge service for clients who need more than just legal assistance.
"We like to say we are the nexus between the law, public policy, public relations and government relations," Walsh said. "We bring all of those kinds of disciplines together and work on projects with that. And a lot of our clients are either clients of our law firm or quite candidly we get a lot of referrals from other law firms."
Most of the 17 members of the group are lawyers with recognizable names representing a mix of political pedigrees: former California Governor Pete Wilson; former New Hampshire Governor Stephen Merrill; ex-chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission Christopher Cox and one-time legal aide to Governor Gray Davis William Kissinger (the former secretary of state's nephew). They claim a client list filled with Fortune 500 companies, although they shroud many specifics of their work since companies will pay dearly to keep their woes under wraps.
They play in a marketplace filled with other consulting groups allied with, attached to or embedded in law firms. ManattJones Global Strategies, DLA Piper and the Cohen Group, Patton Boggs and The Breaux Lott Leadership Group, and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, to name a few, all offer some sort of value-added business or government guidance services to clients.
The crowded field can blur Bingham Consulting's distinctions to even the most experienced observers.
"I had always thought of it as a lobbying or public policy group," said law firm consultant Peter Zeughauser. "The value they deliver at the end of the day is probably the same."
Often times, Zeughauser said, these groups downplay the true lobbying aspects of their work because paid advocacy can carry a negative connotation both for client-companies and the public. And stopping short of employing lobbying services can allow clients to avoid disclosing what they're up to and what they're paying for it.
"What [Bingham Consulting's] real value proposition is, they know California," said Zeughauser, who's based in Newport Beach. "These guys have great access and they know how things work."
Bingham Consulting's executives are a little sensitive to the lobbyist comparisons. Bingham McCutchen already has a separate, sizable lobbying practice in Washington, D.C. And in the lobbyist model people know from Hollywood, "you provide access to the individual and you schmooze them. We don't do either of those two," said Merrill, Bingham Consulting's Boston-based chairman.
Big clients can probably already get their own meetings with a state attorney general, he said. What the consulting group does is educate, he said, and look for a resolution.
"We say [to the state attorney general], 'Look, we want to prove this to you based on the evidence, based on the facts, based on the law,'" Merrill said. "And we try not to tell them that they don't have any business looking at our clients. Our clients, frankly, don't think they have much business doing it, but we try to convince them early on ... to treat state attorneys general as seriously as they would any other regulator."
What also differentiates Bingham from other groups, its leaders say, is the consulting group's independence. Other firms may pull individual lawyers from different practice groups to work together on a specific project. And while about one-third of Bingham's consultants also do legal work for the firm dual-hatters, Cox calls them clients have access to all 17 members of the group.
Operating outside the confines of the law firm and under a retainer business model allows the consultants to escape the traditional mindset that "everything's a legal problem" and that every unusual solution requires buy-in from other partners, Cox said. And it keeps most of the work in house.
"In many instances what law firms will do historically is form strategic alliances with a public relations firm, with a lobbying firm, with a government relations firm," said Walsh, a former top-level aide to Governors Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. "When you're trying to assemble different pieces of a pie like that, the pie just doesn't come out exactly right sometimes."
Another advantage for Bingham is the privilege protections that many of its lawyer-consultants can offer clients.
"Most public relations firms can't do that. Most lobbying firms can't do that. Most government relations experts can't do that either," Walsh said. "For the types of situations that we work on that's not an inconsequential matter."
Group leaders say that 30 to 40 percent of their business referrals come from other law firms that they declined to identify. Those firms, Walsh and others said, realize that they don't have the needed political connections or PR skills. And by bringing in Bingham as a consulting firm they don't risk losing their clients' legal work.
The clients that Bingham Consulting will reveal suggest some of the biggest names in corporate America have turned to the group in the face of potential multimillion-dollar trouble. Attorneys general investigations and litigation accounts for about half of their work.
Bridgestone/Firestone brought on Bingham when faced with multistate attorneys general litigation over severe tire separation problems.
"We actually persuaded Bridgestone/Firestone to give up a million pages of documents without a court order ... and the reason we did so is we found out the attorneys general wanted to put the company out of business," Merrill said. "Outside counsel would never have agreed to that. But we convinced the company, the company did it and we got it resolved."
The group was part of Merck & Co.'s $58 million, 29-state settlement over ads for Vioxx in 2008. One year earlier it was involved with state investigations into Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. They've also worked for Intel Corp., News Corp., The Dannon Co. Inc. and Western Union.
The consulting group has grown slowly both in size and geographical reach. It opened a three-consultant office in Beijing last year and leaders expect to expand in Asia soon.
"Our business model is all chiefs and no Indians, which is very different from most law firms. What that means is we don't produce 250-page consulting reports," said Cox, Bingham Consulting's president. "We don't need to have 1,500 people. And so our expansion is not likely to follow the pattern of other large law firms in that respect. But we definitely have opportunities to expand geographically."