It has been 30 years since Richard Wiley and Bert Rein opened up the law firm that bears their names with 37 attorneys from Kirkland & Ellis.
Today the firm is among the largest in Washington, D.C., with about 275 attorneys. And Wiley knows them all by name. "He’s the firm directory," Rein said jokingly.
Rein, an antitrust lawyer and litigator, has argued numerous cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. This year, he represented Abigail Fisher in her affirmative action case against the University of Texas at Austin. He also represented Shelby County, Ala., in challenging the renewal of the Voting Rights Act.
Wiley focuses his practice on the communications field. He serves as both chairman of the firm and head of the communications practice. He is also a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Neither Wiley nor Rein say they have any intention of retiring soon.
Legal Times sat down with Wiley and Rein at the firm’s K Street N.W. office 30 years to the day that the firm (originally known as Wiley, Johnson & Rein) opened its doors for business.
Legal Times: Why did you decide to found your own firm?
Wiley: We were partners at Kirkland & Ellis and happily so. What happened was a conflict occurred, strictly a client conflict. They took a client in Chicago that was in the teeth of the competitive communications practice that I was trying to develop, and I felt I had to leave. I’m from Chicago, so I didn’t have any thirst to leave. I was happy there. When I left, Bert and Jim Wallace, who is our major IP practitioner, and essentially half of Kirkland & Ellis’ 75-person law firm came with. We had 37 from Kirkland and two from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, including the chairman who had been a Kirkland partner in Chicago. That’s how we started. We had a number of firms, 31 to be exact, who talked to us about joining forces. I was concerned that I would run into the same kind of conflicts into the future. The thought occurred to us, which you wouldn’t maybe do in 2013, but in 1983 it seemed feasible to start our own firm.
Did you always see the firm growing to the size it is today?
Wiley: Our goal at the start was to develop a large, diversified firm. We have maybe two dozen practices today. A lot of it mirrors the activity of the federal government. We have a specialty practice focused on Washington, D.C., and the federal government. Our practice is national and international, but right from here, and [it] basically encompasses regulation, litigation and transaction.
Rein: You learn over time what you can acquire and what you can’t acquire. Our first experience with the two people from the CFTC was we thought, "Here is the chairman and a well-known lawyer in Chicago." And we knew him and everything was great, except Washington is no place for commodities trading. And you rapidly learn there are things you can do in this market and things you can’t. We have tried to integrate our practices. Once you learn what works and doesn’t work, one of the things you do learn is that people do better when they have people who are affiliated with them. As you add a practice that overlaps a little bit, it also extends on the other side. That kind of organic growth happens if you’ve got a government contracts practice. As a group, it sparks a white-collar practice and that sponsors a more general litigation practice. It is that kind of growth that makes the most sense. It takes a while to really learn what does and doesn’t succeed. We didn’t have too many false starts, but we did have some oddballs. You want to grow gradually as you link up your practices so everybody feels they can add value across the board.
Any plans for adding additional offices?
Wiley: Our model is something that has been embraced by the younger lawyers, the people in their 40s and 50s coming up the line. I’m not saying that future generations of Wiley Rein might not have offices elsewhere, but right now we’re fairly efficient essentially having one office. (Wiley Rein has a McLean, Va., office that focuses primarily on bankruptcy.) Largely speaking, it’s a D.C. base. We find that allows us to be very efficient, and we are able to sometimes pass those efficiencies on to our clients.
Rein: Any city you go to — big or small — you’ll find a local practice. But the difference is the local practice in Washington is the practice of the government. It’s a higher level of practice. It’s more sophisticated even though you can do it all here.
How has the legal community changed since the founding of the firm?
Rein: We’ve lived through changing times. We’ve seen the base of the firm change. Women are fully competitive. That wasn’t true when we started. We had some women, but it was unusual. In our summer class this last year, 50 percent or more were women.
Wiley: That has been one of the major changes that you’ve seen, and I think it’s all for the good.
Rein: It’s true with our clients as well. We see a very diverse set of people in our clients that we never saw before.
What are some of the challenges you two faced and how did you overcome?
Rein: One challenge that you face in the beginning is recruiting. You want talented people. And when you’re 37 and out recruiting new people, they think, "Who is going to pay my salary? Where is my check?" It took us a while to really grain traction. We looked for people who were in the government. I think now we feel we can compete on the recruiting side equally across the board. That is the big challenge for any startup, because you’re asking people to take a big risk. The more talented the person, the more options they have. There is a tendency to look for security as economic times change. When everything was growth, people were willing to take more risk. When people are scared and they start to see law firm bankruptcies, they start thinking, "What is going to happen to me?" The irony is Dick and I were wooed by Dewey Ballantine and Joe Califano. I remember going to lunch with him and he said, "You guys, there is a lot of uncertainty, and you’re too small. You need the security of a big firm like Dewey." I think we like to tell people in recruiting, "Don’t outguess the market." The second is infrastructure. I think we have been blessed by having the office manager that Kirkland had sent down here stay with us.
Wiley: Barry Strauss was our firm administrator in 1983 and he still is today.
Rein: One of the things we decided early on because we knew him and we knew his competence was that the lawyers were not going to try and mess with the day-to-day administration of the staff. In many law firms, that is the bane of the law firm.
Wiley: We manage the lawyers. We let him manage the staff.
Rein: We’ve also had to change the composition of the staff — more IT, more business development. We’re in a very different model and yet by not putting our paws into it, we’ve avoided a lot of consternation and trouble.
Any plans to relocate the Washington office?
Wiley: We are right where we were in 1983. A lot of firms have had to move. I had a client in the building next door who said they were moving and we ought to come over here. We were able to get the two building owners to allow us to cut through. We are essentially in two buildings, so we have room for well over 400 lawyers. We have plenty of room for expansion. We have a cottage industry of short-term rentals. We maintain them in order to expand. We just renewed our leases. We’re here until 2024. The buildings are still in good shape and we feel very happy with the two Metros so close to us.
Considering the legal climate, would you have founded your own firm today?
Wiley: I’m not sure that I would. I think today would be more difficult to start with 37 lawyers and compete. Clients are looking for a variety of services and sophistication that is hard to have with 37 people. We were largely a communications firm when we started out. To have a practice that covers many different fields, I think it would be more difficult today. But people are doing it.
Rein: People will always try, but you don’t see that much of it.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.