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In October 2002, Venable took a leap and started one of the first law firm homeland security practice groups — before the Department of Homeland Security even existed. “We saw the need,” says John Pavlick Jr., co-chair of the the firm’s homeland security group. “And we formed the group to address those needs for our clients and, of course, for other clients.” The firm’s lawyers realized that many of the lawyers in its government contracts, immigration, and food and drug practices, among others, had capabilities that addressed the new sphere of legal concerns under the umbrella of homeland security. Many other firms soon saw the same opportunity to remarket their existing capabilities and tout new ones. Now, at least a quarter of the city’s largest firms and a slew of out-of-towners are touting such groups. Firms with homeland security practices include Arnold & Porter, and the D.C. offices of Bracewell & Patterson, Piper Rudnick, and Latham & Watkins, among others. “We figured that [Sept. 11] was going to trigger a massive societal response,” says Robert Housman, a counsel in Bracewell’s homeland security practice group. The kind of responses, he says, that come from those “singular moments in history.” They were right. And the reaction of law firms was indeed a part of that response. This phenomenon illustrates the buoyancy of the Washington legal market in the midst of an economic downturn that has hit other cities hard. When all else fails, D.C. firms — and out-of-town firms with D.C. outposts — still have their recession-resistant government practices. “Typically, the D.C. firms have not been as subject to the ups or the downs,” says Hildebrandt International consultant Lisa Smith. In addition to the proliferation of homeland security groups, last year’s rash of corporate scandals and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which became law in July 2002, has also seen D.C. firms grabbing for a piece of the corporate governance practice pie. Half of the city’s 20 top-grossing firms now list corporate governance practices. While the traditional regulatory practices have kept Washington firms relatively healthy, up-and-comers like the homeland security and corporate governance practices are unproven, and few are sure that the substance will outlast the hype. Smith says firms to some extent simply refashioned existing groups to better market them to existing and prospective clients. Thus, government contracts and immigration lawyers are now “homeland security lawyers.” Because the creation of the Department of Homeland Security is the biggest government reorganization in 50 years, government contracts lawyers, whose clients were eager to supply the agency of 180,000 employees with new products and services, saw an opportunity, says Venable’s Pavlick. But corporate governance, Smith says, is a bit more innovative. D.C.-based firms had always lagged in corporate work, such as mergers and acquisitions — which translated into less of a hit when the downturn caused deal making to dry up. After Sarbanes-Oxley, D.C. lawyers had unique regulatory expertise that offered new inroads into corporate work. Corporate governance has been a “boon for D.C. firms,” she says. Although the work may die down once corporations come into full compliance with new regulations, Smith thinks the corporate governance practice is “here to stay” in the District. The homeland security groups, however, are “a little bit more of a bet,” she says. It’s unclear whether these practices, and their strength in the District, will last past the organization of the Department of Homeland Security. Bracewell’s Housman says the sheer size and power of the department, and the number of homeland security regulations making their way through Congress, have created a great need for homeland security lawyers. “There’s a whole new area of law now,” he says. “You need people who are experts in this.”

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