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Venable, the old-line Baltimore law firm whose Washington, D.C., office is distinguished by its near-total lack of lobbyists, is planning a major — and rapid — talent grab on D.C.’s K Street. The firm has earmarked at least $5 million for marketing and staff support, says Chairman Benjamin Civiletti. Venable, he says, aims to be “one of the top three diverse firms in Washington, D.C. — like Hogan [& Hartson], Arnold [& Porter], and Covington [& Burling].” Adds the former Carter administration attorney general: “It’s past time for a sustained effort in the legislative area.” Since late last year, there has been a steady stream of potential hires visiting the firm’s D.C. office, which boasts some 180 lawyers and pulls down a substantial portion of the firm’s $140 million in annual revenue. Already Venable has extended an offer to defeated Rep. James Rogan, the California Republican and former Clinton impeachment manager, according to one lawyer familiar with the firm’s affairs. An answer could come as early as this week. There have also been discussions, though less substantive, with former Rep. Robert Livingston, R-La., who has proved to be as natural a lobbyist as he was a legislator. The most seductive possibility, however, is far more ambitious. Since late December, Venable has been seriously considering purchasing O’Connor & Hannan, a midsize law and lobbying firm that’s wildly dissimilar to Venable in everything from style to compensation to history. There is not yet a formal offer on the table; nor is there any guarantee there will be one. But O’Connor & Hannan — which boasts a half-dozen seasoned lobbyists, as well as two ex-members of Congress and former Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler, R-S.D. — would give Venable immediate clout. O’Connor’s two mainstays, both over age 60, are Republican Patrick O’Donnell, a former Nixon White House lobbyist who retains close ties to the GOP’s old guard, and Democrat Thomas Quinn, a scrappy banking expert whose mentor was the late Thomas “The Cork” Corcoran, the FDR aide and fellow Rhode Islander who was perhaps the first Washington lobbyist. There’s also former Rep. Thomas Corcoran, R-Ill., 61 (no relation to The Cork), who held House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s seat; and former Rep. James Symington, 73, a Missouri Democrat who worked for then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy and who is the son of the late Sen. Stuart Symington. “There isn’t a soul in this town who doesn’t know and like Jimmy,” says one O’Connor lawyer. “He can get a phone call from everybody, up to George W., who knew his father.” The lawyer leading the search at Venable, Michael Ferrell, is a former O’Connor partner who spent the past 10 years running government affairs at the Mortgage Bankers Association. Ferrell, currently Venable’s only full-time lobbyist, was hired in January with the express purpose of building a lobby practice. (Former Rep. Frank Horton, R-N.Y., 81, occasionally pitches in.) Says Venable managing partner James Shea: “[Ferrell] gives us somebody thinking about this who also goes to bed at night thinking about it.” Venable was founded by Civil War veteran Major Richard Venable a century ago. O’Connor & Hannan, one of the city’s original lobby shops, was founded by Patrick O’Connor, a Minnesotan who arrived in Washington in the early 1960s and was a close friend of Hubert Humphrey. Its 35 lawyers are down from 100 in the mid-1980s, when it had big offices in Denver and Minneapolis. O’Connor & Hannan has a colorful past. In the 1980s, during the heyday of the three-martini lunch, “they’d fly over to Europe and meet some congressmen in London and Paris and buy them dinner,” recalls a lobbyist familiar with the firm. More to the point, the firm retains one of the purest eat-what-you-kill compensation schemes in the city. For partners who have clients on retainer, it works like this: Pay your equally divided share of the rent, your office expenses, your secretary’s salary, and any time put in by the firm’s handful of associates. If you need another partner to work a committee or member of Congress, you and that partner arrange a mutually acceptable fee. What’s left is yours to keep. “There are different systems, different billings. One shop with high overhead — a culture of hours, hours, hours — versus a culture of revenue,” notes an O’Connor & Hannan partner, explaining the difficulties in merging the two firms. “For us, it doesn’t matter if I bill 2,000 hours. What matters is how much revenue I bring in.” Still, competition for new business, especially at a small firm, is tougher than ever, and a pipeline to Venable’s corporate clients is no doubt compelling. “The big guys are dominating,” grouses another O’Connor partner. “Growth is the name of the business, and we haven’t grown anywhere near to the level where we can to keep up with the Verner Liipferts of the world. It’s vicious,” he adds. “Every time a piece of meat goes on the table, eight forks go into it.” It’s that realization, along with the right compensation package, that could bring O’Connor into the Venable fold. “They’re getting a little older, and every day they’re hunting clients,” notes a person familiar with the deal. “You make it worth their while, and they’ll have a larger group of clients to serve with less effort. They’ll be looking at the four floors at Venable rather than the four corners of the earth.”

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