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About a year ago — months in advance of the 2000 presidential election — a group of partners at the D.C. office of Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe began targeting potential recruits from the Clinton administration. It began as casual lunchtime conversation in the firm’s dining room. Soon Piper Marbury formed a committee of eight partners to pick targets among the hundreds of lawyers hitting the job market. The group drafted a list of about 15 possible candidates. Among them: former Solicitor General Seth Waxman; former Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman; and Paula Junghans, acting chief of the Justice Department’s Tax Division. The list even included a nonlawyer: Stephen Colgate, the chief operating officer at the DOJ. “We knew whichever way the election went, there were going to be talented people on the street,” says partner Jeffrey Liss, Piper Marbury’s chief operating officer. “We decided we were going to be highly selective and talk to people who fit our strategic needs.” So far, Junghans and Colgate have signed on, while some on Piper Marbury’s list, including Glickman, ended up elsewhere. Piper Marbury continues to pursue a few others. The revolving door between federal government and law firms is a permanent feature of the Washington, D.C., legal market, and the door spins faster than ever when a presidential election ushers a new party into power. Since September 2000, the District’s 10 largest law offices report 37 new hires out of the executive branch at the partner or counsel level. An additional nine members of Congress and Hill staffers were recruited. But the highly strategic approach taken by Piper Marbury and other firms is something new, say local lawyers and legal recruiters. “The attitude toward bringing in high-level government officials has changed dramatically over the past five or six years. Firms are being much more selective, much more careful, and much more thoughtful,” says recruiter Charles Garrison of Washington, D.C.’s Garrison & Sisson, a placement firm popular with lawyers exiting the government. “Gone are the days of throwing out high-guaranteed compensation because someone happens to head an agency,” Garrison says. Garrison adds that the slowing economy has contributed to firms’ cautious hiring. “Every sensitivity is heightened by economic considerations,” he says. But there is more than a fickle market behind the heightened scrutiny of government lawyers. Equally important is an industry-wide shift away from the one-stop shopping megafirm of the early 1990s and toward a more streamlined, specialized structure. As firms seek to distinguish themselves based on a handful of profitable practice areas, they have become more focused in their recruiting as well. Instead of chasing high-profile government officials and attempting to build new practices off their reputations, firms are wooing lawyers in areas where they already have complementary expertise or see concrete business opportunities. Aside from firms with hefty lobbying practices — such as Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld; Hogan & Hartson; Patton Boggs; and Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand — most shy away from recruiting former Congress members or legislative aides. “We are much more focused on people for their substantive legal skills than their political clout,” says Latham & Watkins’ D.C. managing partner Eric Bernthal. “Most people coming out of the administration are not likely to fit our criteria.” In January, Latham & Watkins’ D.C. office brought in Bruce Babbitt, exiting secretary of the interior, and David Hayes, former deputy secretary of the interior and a one-time Latham partner. Babbitt previously was a partner at the Phoenix office of D.C.’s Steptoe & Johnson. Bernthal notes that Latham would be unlikely to hire someone at the partner level who has not worked for a law firm in the past. “I would never say never. Our history really has been to take people who have been established practitioners,” Bernthal says. “People leaving high positions in the administration may have a strong national or even international reputation, but once they get to a law firm they’ve got to be able to go out and develop business.” PRICE OF FAME Area partners have a long memory for past hires that failed to live up to firm expectations — or their expensive pay checks. One well-known cautionary tale involves now-defunct Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey. In 1987, the 650-lawyer firm won an expensive bidding war to recruit former Sens. Russell Long (D-La.) and Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), paying both nearly $1 million annually. Less than a year later, the firm collapsed in a mountain of debt. More recently, Verner, Liipfert’s hires of longtime senator from Kansas and defeated Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole in 1997 and former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) in 1995 have raised eyebrows. While an ex-senator’s notoriety brings immediate attention to client causes, attorneys and lobbyists at other firms believe they can deliver just as effectively and more economically. Verner, Liipfert Chairman Harry McPherson stands by the decision. “We’re the only firm I know of to have two former Senate majority leaders. I feel incredibly proud of them on behalf of the firm.” While the stigma has attached more strongly to exiting members of Congress than agency lawyers, the lesson that high-level political experience does not translate directly into a lucrative book of business has been learned well in D.C. firms. “Law firms don’t want to bring on unproven entities,” says legal recruiter Avery Ellis of Mestel & Co. “They want lawyers with track records, portable clients, and proven commercial value.” “All of us have had experience with people coming out of government whose notions of what they wanted were not compatible with the practice of law in a firm setting,” says Piper Marbury partner Philip Zeidman. Of course, there is an elite corps of individuals exiting any administration with the expertise and reputation to command top dollar at nearly any firm. According to firm leaders and hiring partners, today’s most attractive candidates are government attorneys who have worked directly on programs that impact the private sector. Particularly hot fields include communications, tax, antitrust, and food and drug regulation. Although experienced practitioners in these areas can command partner draws worth more than $1 million, many of the most sought-after Clinton appointees, including former DOJ antitrust chief Joel Klein and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, have not gone back to private practice. “People in particularly attractive areas are going to find great opportunities,” says Douglas Melamed, Klein’s replacement as antitrust chief for the final months of the Clinton administration. “My sense is that generalist, Washington, problem-solver types are probably not getting huge romances.” Melamed is now a partner at D.C.’s Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, where he worked before entering government in 1996. He adds that the firms he spoke with seemed to be taking a cautious approach to lateral hiring out of the government. “The firms I spoke with were not viewing it as an entrepreneurial, speculative venture,” he says. HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE Not surprisingly it is D.C.’s home grown firms that hire the greatest number of attorneys out of the government, although many report increased competition from outside firms with large Washington offices. Since September 2000, D.C.’s largest firm, 750-lawyer Hogan & Hartson, brought in six new partners from the White House, the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Food and Drug Administration. The firm also recruited former Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), who chaired the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Firm lawyers began putting feelers out to prospective recruits more than a year ago, although many high-level government officials declined to enter negotiations until after Inauguration Day to avoid potential conflicts, says D.C. managing partner Ann Morgan Vickery. “We knew there was going to be a change of one sort or the other after last year’s election, so there was an opportunity to think ahead and be strategic,” Vickery says, noting that Hogan was particularly interested in bolstering its growing health and privacy groups. Aside from advance planning, Vickery says opportunism and personal relationships also play important roles in landing key talent. “When someone who is a very high-quality lawyer is moving out of government, we tend to pursue them unless we are oversubscribed in that area,” Vickery says. “People who are able to work in high levels of government have skills that are valuable, even if they are not traditional legal skills,” she adds. “I think the question is whether you should pay them a lot more than you pay your other excellent lawyers.” The firm that made the greatest number of high-level hires out of the administration, bringing in one counsel and eight partners, is Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. Chairman William Perlstein says that firm partners planned ahead to target lawyers in antitrust, securities regulation, telecommunications, international trade, and aviation-areas Wilmer considers its signature practice groups. “We went into the process looking for additional expertise in areas we’re focusing on,” Perlstein says. “Frankly, it’s hard enough making the transition from government to private practice. We would be unlikely to hire someone and expect them to go off and build a practice. “ Perlstein says his firm takes a free market view toward the compensation question. Junior lawyers tend to come in at the same rank as their peers. But if the firm is serious about snagging a high-level government official, partners dig into their pockets to meet other firms’ offers. “We feel our clients expect us to have a mix of people who have significant government experience. That is part of the experience of hiring a top rate Washington law firm,” Perlstein says. Related Chart: Talent Show: Government Hires at Big Firms

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