Five years ago, Kannon Shanmugam left the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office to build an appellate practice as a partner at the litigation firm Williams & Connolly.

He was at the leading edge of a trend that has continued ever since: assistants to the solicitor general taking — or sharing — the reins at Supreme Court practices at top firms.

Think Deanne Maynard at Morrison & Foerster, Lisa Blatt at Arnold & Porter, Douglas Hallward-Driemeier at Ropes & Gray and William Jay at Goodwin Procter. Pratik Shah in August joined Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Sullivan & Cromwell announced the hiring of Jeffrey Wall this month.

Shanmugam has argued five cases at the high court since joining Williams & Connolly, for a total of 13 — matching the number of co-founder Edward Bennett Williams, whose legacy looms large at the roughly 275-lawyer firm.

Recently Shanmugam sat down with Legal Times to discuss building a practice at a firm that does not have practice groups, amid the competitive and economic pressures of representing clients before the nation’s highest court.

Legal Times: What did you find when you arrived at Williams & Connolly five years ago, in terms of the appellate practice?

Shanmugam: Williams & Connolly has always had a vibrant appellate practice. That goes back to the days of the firm’s founder, Edward Bennett Williams, who was not only a fantastic trial lawyer but also a fantastic Supreme Court litigator. If anything, I think the firm may have suffered from a bit of a perception problem, in that the firm was not perceived by the outside world as having a Supreme Court and appellate practice. So the first task when I got to the firm was to try to correct that perception and make sure that the world at large realized that the firm had that capacity.

Legal Times: Were the cases coming up inside the firm through litigation below, or was it a matter of getting new business at the appellate stage?

Shanmugam: It was both. For any appellate practice to succeed over the long term, you have to have some volume of internally generated work. Appellate work will always flow naturally from work the firm is doing on the trial level. But beyond that, the goal is obviously to attract new cases and new clients and to do more appellate work for the firm’s existing clients.

Legal Times: So how did you build the practice?

Shanmugam: One of the most important things to do was to make sure that the firm’s existing clients knew that we had capacity to do Supreme Court and appellate work, and I certainly spent a lot of time when I first got to the firm just going out to visit the firm’s clients and talking to them about that. Beyond that, the most important thing for any lawyer in building a practice is simply to do the best work that you can and to hope people recognize that over time.

Legal Times: Did you also set about to hire more attorneys to do appellate work?

Shanmugam: Williams & Connolly is unusual in that we don’t have practice groups. Consistent with that culture, we don’t have a discretely defined appellate litigation group. There certainly are plenty of lawyers here, myself included, who spend a substantial amount of their time focusing on appellate work. But we don’t require our associates to choose when they get here, nor do we somehow select associates and tell them that they’re going to be in the appellate litigation group.

Legal Times: So when you came your mandate wasn’t to get five Supreme Court cases a term, which some lawyers do?

Shanmugam: That’s right. Being in the Supreme Court is an important part of any successful appellate practice, but I certainly didn’t set out to do as many Supreme Court arguments as possible. That’s never been my goal and isn’t my goal now. My goal is to build a sustainable appellate practice, of which the Supreme Court work is a part.

The firm had only been in the Supreme Court once in the seven years before I got to the firm, so it was one of my priorities to make sure that we are in the Supreme Court on a regular basis. But I don’t think it’s particularly important to be in the Supreme Court a certain number of times a year.

Legal Times: Why is it important to be in the Supreme Court? It seems to be the brass ring for some firms.

Shanmugam: It’s more visible, so I think there’s a sense in which it is valuable to be there regularly. And look, everyone enjoys Supreme Court arguments. I love arguing in the Supreme Court, but I also love arguing in other courts, so I don’t view it as the be-all and end-all for our practice. I have now argued five cases in the court in my first five years at the firm, which is frankly more than I would have expected or hoped for when I got here. But it isn’t a priority of mine to get as many Supreme Court arguments as possible.

Part of the reason why that’s true, quite frankly, is that a lot of the work in the Supreme Court is work that is done pro bono or at a reduced rate. While it’s obviously worthwhile to do cases in the court pro bono, provided those cases are consistent with the objectives of our pro bono program, my long-term goal is to build a practice that is sustainable. It’s very rare nowadays that you have a Supreme Court case where you can charge your usual rates, and even former solicitors general are routinely doing cases in the court nowadays at reduced rates.

Legal Times: Are the reduced rates a result of the economy or supply and demand?

Shanmugam: I think there’s just incredible competition for cases in the court, and that’s borne out in the reports about how aggressive some lawyers have been in pursuing those cases. So it’s supply and demand in the sense that the supply of Supreme Court arguments is relatively limited.

Legal Times: I want to talk about your pro bono cases. Of course, the most recent one, with probably the highest profile, is Maryland v. King, involving police taking DNA samples from arrestees. How did that come to the firm and to you?

Shanmugam: I was sitting here in my office one day, when I got a phone call from Adrienne Coleman, who is Alonzo King’s aunt, asking if we would be willing to take on his representation at the court. This was before the court had granted certiorari, but after the chief justice had entered a stay, and so it was clearly a case that had some potential to be granted. As it happens, I’m friends with Celia Davis, the lawyer who had argued the case in the Maryland Court of Appeals, and she had told me about the decision when it came down, so I already had some familiarity with the case.

First of all, before we took on the representation, I wanted to make sure that it was consistent with the objectives of our pro bono program, and clearly it was because Mr. King is indigent. Second of all, I took a look at the merits of the case, and it didn’t take me very long to conclude that there was a very substantial and important constitutional issue in the case. So it ultimately was not a difficult decision to agree to take on the case. Of course, it ended up being a fascinating case to work on, though we were obviously very disappointed by the result.

Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com.