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At first glance it seems ironic: Thomas O’Neil III leaves his senior in-house job at WorldCom Inc. to start a practice at Piper Rudnick called “Government Controversies.” WorldCom, of course, knows all about government controversies. The bankrupt telecommunications giant faces a slew of investigations into its accounting practices, and four former executives have pled guilty to criminal charges, while a fifth has been indicted. The move by O’Neil — who served as WorldCom’s chief litigation counsel until this past January and as general counsel of its MCI Group subsidiary until July — raises two questions. Is this a case of the fox guarding the henhouse? Or has Piper just landed the ideal star for a trendy marketing ploy? The answers: no to the former, and maybe to the latter. While O’Neil won’t discuss his role in any of the myriad WorldCom inquiries, a source close to the firm says that the former in-house lawyer isn’t the target of any government probe. In fact, O’Neil has already landed WorldCom as his first client. He’s advising the company on federal and state investigations launched after it disclosed more than $7 billion in inflated revenue. Francis Burch Jr., co-chairman of 900-lawyer Piper Rudnick, has high hopes for O’Neil, who will be based in the firm’s D.C. office. The new practice will offer companies comprehensive advice on how to navigate federal agencies, from lobbying and regulatory compliance to criminal investigations and civil lawsuits. Burch has known O’Neil for 20 years and was instrumental in bringing him on board as an equity partner. Burch says the firm did its due diligence and concluded that O’Neil wasn’t tainted by his WorldCom association. “We did look carefully at the question of whether anyone could make any such suggestion [of a conflict], and we were very satisfied, after looking very carefully at the facts, that there was [only] a small risk,” Burch says. AN ORIGINAL IDEA, OR JUST TRENDY? With O’Neil’s practice, however, Piper is clambering on to what has quickly become a crowded bandwagon. After a year of accounting scandals, and especially after passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, several firms around the country have started government compliance practices. The marketing push is reminiscent of the “Y2K” practices designed to address the millennium meltdown that never happened. But while Y2K turned out to be an overhyped danger, O’Neil thinks the need for comprehensive government advice is very real. A 1982 Georgetown Law Center graduate and former Hogan & Hartson partner, O’Neil joined MCI in 1996, two years before it was acquired by WorldCom. Almost every day, he says, he dealt with a different government agency and a different law firm. He would pay one firm to help him navigate the Federal Trade Commission. He would hire another to run interference with the Federal Communications Commission. Yet a third would handle SEC matters. Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, if companies could go to a single law firm? At Piper, O’Neil won’t have any lawyers reporting directly to him. Rather, his job will be to pull lawyers from different practice areas, depending on a client’s particular need, and to coordinate their work. He’s optimistic that packaged services will sell. “Clients want a holistic approach,” he says. “They need [it].” Just ask his first client.

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