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There are still 10 months before the first Democratic presidential primaries, but the attacks have already started, and candidates are scrambling to lock in endorsements and cash. So it seems odd for senior attorneys from opposing campaigns to be in close daily contact. But lawyers for Barack Obama and Christopher Dodd have no choice. They work on the same floor. Seattle-based Perkins Coie represents both the Dodd and Obama campaigns. In the last two election cycles, the firm has made a name for itself in presidential politics, in part by handling more than one White House hopeful at a time. The work puts the firm in an elite group that monopolizes high-profile candidates. Others include Lyn Utrecht of Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & MacKinnon and Benjamin Ginsberg of Patton Boggs. Utrecht represents Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), and former Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) of Iowa, before he dropped out of the race. In the last year, Ginsberg has handled former Republican Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, George Pataki of New York, and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, as well as Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). At Perkins Coie, the firm’s presidential work grew out of its congressional practice, which was launched by Robert Bauer, now Obama’s counsel, after a stint in the Carter White House. It has eight political attorneys in Washington, D.C., and five full-time compliance specialists. Partner Marc Elias is Dodd’s attorney. The firm’s core clients include the Democratic congressional campaign committees, former leaders from both chambers, such as Thomas Foley and Thomas Daschle, and 70 current members of Congress. Before 2003, Perkins Coie’s experience with presidential elections was limited. But that year, three of its longtime congressional clients — John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman, and Richard Gephardt — entered the primaries. With so many clients competing, the firm initially expected to sit the election out. Elias says that that wasn’t viewed as a hardship, because presidential races weren’t the group’s bread and butter. But the candidates weren’t so cool. Heading into the biggest campaign of their lives, they wanted to keep the lawyers who knew them best, according to Elias. Presidential campaign lawyers are responsible for compliance with federal finance laws, handling business issues from leases to insurance, and advising on ethics and campaign tactics. The financial issues that lawyers confront could change in 2008 if, as expected, leading candidates decide not to take part in the public financing system. The upcoming election could be the first time since Watergate that candidates are not governed by spending limits in the general election. The lawyers do this work on a political minefield, something Elias learned the hard way as John Kerry’s counsel in 2004. When the infamous Swift Boat Veterans ads attacking Kerry’s military record hit the airwaves, Elias gave a lawyer’s response: He sent letters to the TV networks, arguing that the ads violated Federal Communications Commission rules and should be pulled. Within days, he was criticized by Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh for trying to silence veterans. As the current presidential cycle neared, Perkins Coie faced another flooded field of Democratic candidates. By early 2006 the firm had already been approached by several nonclients, and Bauer and Elias thought up to four current clients might run. “We needed some way to differentiate,” says Elias. “Would it be first-come, first-served? Likelihood that they would succeed?” He and Bauer agreed that they would work only for existing clients and represent every client who asked. Dodd and Obama asked. To guard against conflicts, both campaigns have a dedicated team of three lawyers. They do not confer. When Bauer filed a request for an advisory opinion for Obama with the Federal Election Commission in February, Elias read it on the FEC Web site like everybody else. Dodd and Obama were asked to sign detailed disclosure forms, and the firm offered them identical contracts. Perkins Coie charges a base monthly retainer and bills for other work as needed. Still, some question the wisdom, if not the legality, of multiple representations. “What if one campaign wants to file a complaint against the other?” asks Trevor Potter, a Caplin & Drysdale partner who is outside counsel to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign. Bauer says that such litigation is unlikely, but that, if necessary, the firm would find an alternative solution. “We would never sue an existing client,” he says. As difficult as it is to imagine two full-throttle presidential campaigns being guided out of one office, Bauer and Elias insist that it’s not a problem. “When I need to talk,” Bauer says, “it’s just a matter of closing one’s door.”
Elizabeth Goldberg is a reporter for The American Lawyer , an ALM publication where this article first appeared.

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