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Tech booms may come and go, but the federal government is eternal. That’s the lesson that Washington, D.C., firms, as well as some out-of-towners with big Washington offices, are learning. For the past few years, nearly all of the city’s biggest players have aggressively worked to refashion themselves as tech specialists, opening offices in Northern Virginia’s high-tech corridor, beefing up their ranks of corporate lawyers, and devouring intellectual property boutiques. But now, with the tech sector on its knees, D.C. firms are heading for more stable ground — lobbying work. Some firms, such as Patton Boggs; Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering; Hogan & Hartson; and Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, have long regarded lobbying as a bread-and-butter practice. But for the D.C. firms that once threw themselves into the tech work — such as Shaw Pittman and Venable, Baetjer and Howard. Shaw Pittman recently recruited Connie Mack, a former U.S. senator from Florida, to the firm, and has doubled the size of its lobbying group to 14 in the past year. Venable just snagged James Rogan, a former California congressman and assistant House majority whip, and in the span of seven months expanded its legislative practice from two lobbyists to 20. Both Mack and Rogan are Republicans, and the increased emphasis on lobbying is the result of both the tech slowdown and the change in administrations. The old alliances of the Clinton years are gone, but those now forming with the Bush White House are still up for grabs. That creates an opportunity for firms to become bigger players on the high-stakes political scene. D.C.’s Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn has doubled the size of its lobbying group from 12 to 24 in the past year. Christopher “Kit” Smith, the firm’s managing partner, says the push was made both to balance out the firm’s previously Democratic-leaning legislative practice and to make Arent Fox a more attractive merger partner. “It’s no secret we’re in merger talks,” says Smith. “Any firm outside D.C. [considering merging with a Washington-based firm] would look for [us] to have a strong government relations capability.” Some out-of-town firms with substantial D.C. offices are also hoping to revitalize their lobbying arms. Among them are Pittsburgh’s Reed Smith, Chicago’s Winston & Strawn, and Miami’s Greenberg Traurig. For Reed Smith, the move is part of a firmwide revitalization program. For Winston & Strawn, the growth of the lobbying practice is part of a plan hatched at a partners’ retreat last summer. And for Greenberg Traurig, it has followed mainly from the work the firm did for tech companies on legislative issues. The D.C. office of Chicago’s McDermott, Will & Emery may not be doubling the size of its government relations practice, but its recent recruitment of former U.S. secretary of Defense William Cohen has given the firm a much-needed dose of political prestige. The move, says Timothy Waters, who heads the office, is part of the firm’s effort to up the visibility of its 20-person government relations group. Technically, Cohen is not joining the firm, but instead will have a “strategic partnership” with McDermott Will, in which he will practice and consult with clients out of the firm’s D.C. office. Watters says that the deal was structured this way primarily so that Cohen, who practiced law briefly in Maine but is not a member of the D.C. bar, would be free to take on new work without having to worry about client conflicts. It makes sense that in the current climate of economic uncertainty, firms are focusing on building their government relations practices. In good times or bad, clients need a helping hand in dealing with Congress and the regulatory agencies, so it’s steady work. There’s never really a down cycle in the business of influence peddling. But the flip side of that coin is that there’s no soaring upturn either. That’s not to say that lobbying is without its own risks — and casualties. James Duff, a veteran D.C. lawyer and lobbyist at the Washington office of Memphis’s Baker, Donelson, Bearman & Caldwell, has seen firms fall into the twin traps of overspecialization and partisanship. “The long-term advice,” he says, “is to diversify.” Still, lobbying is “a pretty recession-proof business, says John Jonas, head of the government relations group at Patton Boggs. “It’s like people shifting their stock portfolio around. You look for a more kind of stable business to invest in.” To C. Boyden Gray, who served as counsel to the first President Bush from 1989 to 1993 — and now brings his own Republican cachet to Wilmer Cutler — the efforts that firms are making to add heft to their lobbying practices are in response to the “declining opportunity in M&A, rather than the emergence of any new issues in the political world.” Put another way: In an uncertain economy, why gamble on Wall Street when you can have the relative safety of K Street?

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