It’s hard to talk about lobbying in Washington without mentioning Patton Boggs. The firm, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, was one of the first D.C. law firms to fully incorporate a lobbying operation. When Thomas Boggs Jr. joined the firm that now bears his name, in 1966, there were just a handful of lobbyists. But that small practice quickly grew into the top ranks of the influence industry in Washington — in no small part because of Boggs.
Boggs and the firm’s managing partner, Edward Newberry, spoke with The National Law Journal recently from Patton’s office in D.C.’s West End neighborhood near Georgetown, about politics, lobbying and Washington influence.
A fresh cigar sat in Boggs’ ashtray near his desk as he spoke, and he noted that he planned to light up after the interview (a firm spokesman quickly noted that the exhaust fan above his desk is D.C. code-compliant). He’s 72, but said he has no plans to retire any time soon. “When I started this game, I used to carry cigars around in my pocket and give them away on the Hill,” Boggs said. “Now I carry a BlackBerry. I smoke cigars because I like them, but you can’t give them away anymore.”
Patton Boggs’ lobbying practice has changed significantly in the decades Boggs has been with the firm, but advocacy remains an integral part of the firm’s work. At the end of 2011, the firm had 491 attorneys spread across nine offices, and posted gross revenues of $339.5 million in 2011. Of that, the firm’s lobbying arm posted $101.8 million in gross revenue, accounting for almost 30 percent of its total revenue. The firm employed 127 lobbyists at the end of 2011.
The firm also has strong roots in representing sovereign nations, in part because founding partner James Patton Jr. was an international trade attorney. As the firm grew, so did its practices. The firm maintains strong corporate, litigation, food and drug and environmental groups, among others.
“We have evolved into a full-service law firm that provides the full range of legal services to a group of highly sophisticated corporate clients,” Newberry said. “When there is an element of government involvement, we are the best.”
How has the marriage between lobbying and big law evolved since you first joined the firm?
Boggs: We had a vacuum unfulfilled until about 1970. Most lobbying was done by boutiques, and most lobbying was really about regulatory rules. The boutique tended to be the former chairman or the former commissioner of the agency who either didn’t get reappointed or retired. Very few law firms actually did any lobbying. The only thing they did at all in the lobbying area was tax lobbying. I learned early on that if you’re going to lobby an issue, the smart staff guys on the Hill were far more interested in talking to somebody who has actually been out in the field practicing than they were about having a pitch made by a lobbyist. If you’re an environmental lawyer, fine then you’re an environmental lawyer. But if we need you to come talk about the Superfund bill on the Hill, we’d like you to come with us. That has been the combination that has proved very successful.
How did growing up in a political household influence your career, and how have politics in Washington changed?
Boggs: Like lots of young people, you became a lawyer to decide what you wanted to do. Growing up in a political family, I learned to have a great respect for politicians. They are hardworking and honest people, and I have a great deal of respect for them. One of the big changes in this town is the civility that exists between the two parties is zero. Growing up, the civility was very close. I think the primary reason for that is everyone lived here. When you were in Congress, you moved to Washington — your family moved to Washington. Unless you were from Delaware or New Jersey, you lived in Washington and you got, at the most, 12 trips paid for back home a year. When Newt [Gingrich] came along and said we’re going to spend half our time back in the districts, it greatly increased the allowance of members of Congress to return to the districts, almost to where they can go back and forth at will. You don’t have much of the social interplay that we had.
What is the future in law and lobbying in Washington?
Boggs: When I began this game, the only authority was the U.S. government. So if you had a congressional hearing on — pick your topic — the government agency in charge of that area would come there and testify. And that was basically the factual basis for how Congress acted. Today, the outside world has far better access to information and statistics, economic effects, employment effects, than the U.S. government has. So there has been a whole big industry created of ancillary services to inform Congress, which is quite different than the one-on-one lobbying exercise that existed until 1980. It started to shift back in 1980. The first campaign act was passed in 1976. Prior to that, if you were a Republican from New York, you went to your Republican leader and he raised the great deal of your money. It gave the leadership a great deal of control.
What effect has technology had on lobbying?
Newberry: Technology has had a profound impact on lobbying. When I was a young lobbyist here in 1991, everything you did, you went to the Hill. If you wanted to see what a bill said or an amendment said, you had to go to the Hill to get it. If you wanted to meet with somebody, you called them on the phone, but you went up there to see them. Today, it’s all online. Today if you want to talk to a staff person, you send them a text or you send them an email. A lot of people out there are trying to figure out how to utilize the social media in ways that are effective for lobbying. They are using data mining to figure out who might be the right person to make a contact. All the social media, whether it be Twitter or Facebook, is going to have a profound effect, but I don’t know that people have figured that out yet from a lobbying perspective.
What are your thoughts on this year’s election?
Boggs: If you’d asked six months ago what I thought the Senate would look like, I would tell you that it would be very hard for the Democrats to keep the Senate. They have 23 seats to defend and have had some very significant retirements. With the Senate, I think it’s remarkable that the Democrats are still very much in the game. I would assume that the Senate stays Democratic. I predict the House stays Republican by about 10 less seats than they have now. As for the presidency, if you ask me on November 1, I might have a different prediction because it changes so frequently. Right now I would say that the odds are still on Obama winning.
Any plans to move the office out of the West End?
Newberry: We’ve got about five years before our lease expires here and we’re certainly looking at a variety of options. We like it here. It’s a great building, and I think our attorneys like it here. I don’t know what we’ll do, but we’re certainly going to see what’s in the marketplace. There is not much available citywide that can accommodate a firm of our size.
Matthew Huisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.