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Even with the substantial fees the Gila were bringing the firm, as late as 2000 Dallas-based Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld did not consider itself a practitioner of Indian law. But that changed with the arrival of Barry Brandon. As he prepared to leave his post as chief of staff at the National Indian Gaming Commission that year, Brandon, who knew of the firm’s involvement in the water negotiations, put in a cold call to public policy partner Donald Pongrace. “I wasn’t sure if Akin Gump had a [Native American] practice or if that was a singular instance,” Brandon says of the water representation, “but I figured I’d call and find out.” Pongrace consulted his partners and offered Brandon the chance to help start up a Native American practice group at the firm. The decision didn’t require a formal vote of the executive committee, but discussions did last for nearly two weeks before an informal consensus was reached. “If you’re going to have a practice group,” says Pongrace, “it has to define itself, its strategy and its business goals.” Pongrace had started up the firm’s Brussels office, so he knew what the firm would be looking to accomplish. “The critical concern in starting a group,” says Pongrace, “is to avoid the one-trick pony — it’s a great act, but you can’t build the circus around it.” Pongrace says the firm only wanted to invest in an area in which it could reasonably expect to become a top-three player. Pongrace concluded that the firm could handle — and charge premiums for — the gaming and natural resource work that other tribes like the Gila increasingly needed. “We want the bet-your-company kinds of cases,” says Pongrace. In a quick calculation at the time, he figured that the firm’s $1.5 million of Native American work in 2000 could grow to $3 million by mining this practice. Pongrace projects that $4.5-5 million of revenue will be generated by the practice in 2002, and says it is the fastest-growing policy group in D.C. A few months after hiring Brandon, in May 2001, Akin Gump strengthened its Native American commitment by forming a strategic alliance with Ietan Consulting, LLC, which advises four of the top ten gaming tribes. The two shops share office space and direct business to each other when circumstance warrants. Akin Gump hired its second Native American attorney — Todd Araujo of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (now Aquinnah) — to work in the new group last June. Tribal clients say they want lawyers who “understand their needs” and “speak their language.” Unlike when Gila GC Rodney Lewis started out 30 years ago, today there is an ample supply of Native American attorneys — more than 3,000, according to a recent survey by Philip “Sam” Deloria of the University of New Mexico — and tribes look to the firms that have hired them. As a member of both the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and the Seneca Nation in New York — and having connections to many tribes from his post in the government — Brandon was a logical rainmaker. But that didn’t require a lot of new glad-handing. By taking on Brandon, the firm effectively broadcast its commitment to the practice, and Akin Gump now represents both of Brandon’s tribes, plus the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas. According to Pongrace, six attorneys at the firm do Indian law full-time, and about 20 work on matters sporadically. Pongrace says the practice had low start-up costs, with nonpersonnel tabs, mostly for marketing, running roughly $100,000. Ken Bellmard, the general counsel for the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, decided to give his business to Akin Gump about a year ago. An attorney at a small St. Louis firm had been working on the Miami tribe’s claim to 2.6 million acres of Illinois land before Akin Gump. Bellmard wanted to add a lobbying arm to what had been a purely litigation effort and enlisted Akin Gump, in part because the firm had worked for the Gila tribe. “Word gets out, and you know who’s working for a particular tribe,” says Bellmard, “and when you see that tribe progressing, it gets your attention.” And, he adds, “the Gilas are progressive, have good business relations in their local community, and are noted in the Indian community for getting things done for their tribal members.” Now the same might be said for Akin Gump.

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