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Natalie Ludaway puts little stock in the stereotype that the biggest law firms are the best ones. And neither, it seems, do her clients — among them Verizon Communications, the Washington Convention Center, Pepco and human transport device maker Segway. Ludaway, the managing partner of what is widely viewed as D.C.’s premier minority-owned firm, had her name added to the masthead when Leftwich & Douglas officially became Leftwich & Ludaway in September. (Name partner Frederick Douglas left the firm earlier this year.) With 13 lawyers, the general practice firm founded by Willie Leftwich in 1970 has managed to survive in spite of the trend toward consolidation of small, top-notch legal shops with law firm behemoths. Along the way, it has carved out a niche as a savvy player with strong connections to the city government. “I don’t think people are aware of how sophisticated our practice is,” says Ludaway. “We do really neat, interesting stuff.” Although she is careful to point out that the firm, named one of the top black-owned law firms in the country by Black Enterprise magazine in 1996, handles a full range of legal issues, she ticks off the highlights: civil litigation, telecommunications, energy, business transactions, employment law and development projects. Ludaway, who joined the firm after getting her law degree from George Washington University in 1986, is a player in her own right. Active in D.C. politics, she sits on the Federal City Council and the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, and was named one of Washingtonian magazine’s 100 Most Powerful Women in 2001 (one of only seven in the “Legal Authorities” category). In addition to priding herself on the work done by her small-firm lawyers on behalf of big-name clients, Ludaway likes to boast that the firm welcomes lawyers of “all shapes, sizes, and colors.” Ludaway, 42, is African-American, as are firm founder Leftwich, who retired in 1996, and three of the firm’s five partners. For more than 30 years, save for a brief breakup in the early 1980s, the firm has enjoyed a longevity and success that other comparable minority-owned D.C. firms have not. Where many have found it difficult to break away from traditional domestic law and criminal defense practices, Leftwich & Ludaway has managed to maintain a diverse practice that combines litigation, regulatory work and lobbying, along with reduced-fee representation of individual clients. Many minority-owned law firms haven’t been able to break into corporate and regulatory practices because they aren’t able to “assemble the resources to handle major work,” says Keith Watters, managing partner of Keith Watters & Associates and a past president of the National Bar Association, the largest organization of black lawyers in the country. “There are many high-profile, highly skilled African-American professionals who choose to go to majority-owned firms,” Watters continues. “It’s hard to be a small practitioner.” For Leftwich, the reason for founding the firm 33 years ago was simple: He couldn’t get a job. Then 33, Leftwich had graduated from George Washington University Law School with honors several years earlier and was working as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Law was his second career: In his previous life, he had been an engineer who crafted sensory devices for the Navy. But none of the city’s big firms were ready to hire the young black man. “Nobody interviewed you,” Leftwich says. “Nobody made any pretenses along those lines.” As Leftwich tells it today, he and fellow George Washington alum James Hudson (recently appointed to the National Capital Revitalization Corp.’s board of directors) had little choice but to start their own firm, Hudson & Leftwich. They combined their business contacts to produce a modest client base of two: Leftwich the engineer snagged Defense Department contractor Resdel Engineering, and Hudson signed on a young activist just getting started in politics with a run for the city’s school board — Marion Barry. But Leftwich and Hudson were able to add some hefty clients early on: When the District was given the go-ahead to issue bonds in the early 1970s, the firm became its bond counsel. Soon after, the firm became one of the first minority-owned law firms to be listed in “The Red Book” — The Bond Buyer’s Directory of Municipal Bond Dealers. In 1976, the firm won a bid to be counsel to the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project, a federally mandated effort to revitalize the rail lines between Washington and Boston. A few years later, it scored several city clients, including Detroit, Oakland, New Orleans and Kansas City, after hiring Joanne Doddy Fort, who was lobbying for the National Governors Association. The firm continued to grow in size and prestige, with Leftwich going on to serve on the District’s first Judicial Nomination Commission, on the first Human Rights Commission and as the first nongovernment African-American lawyer on the D.C. Bar’s Board on Professional Responsibility. But in 1995, Leftwich was diagnosed with cancer and was unable to work. He says he came to the realization then that his life hadn’t been a “John Grisham novel,” and although he had been happy “going to work at six or seven in the morning and coming home at nine or 10 at night,” it was time to try something new. At age 59, he retired from the firm, and, at a friend’s suggestion, took up pottery. Today, his creations are showcased in a Manassas, Va., gallery. But Leftwich’s departure left the firm in need of a new leader, and in 1996, the partners elected Ludaway, then just 34, for the job. A CRUCIAL JUNCTION A firm’s transition from one generation to the next can make or break it, but by then, firm lawyers had amassed a solid book of business and were resolved to remain independent. And although the firm hasn’t become a D.C. mammoth, it hasn’t been devoured by one either. Instead, the small-firm business model Leftwich established early on has remained the game plan. The firm has “mastered the D.C. business model,” says Doddy Fort. “They’re very different from any firm in the city, and very different from African-American firms.” But it’s not easy. Many nonboutique small firms struggle to stay in business because they can’t pay top law school talent the $100,000-plus salaries standard at big firms. “It’s a conscious decision as an associate,” says partner Rebecca Taylor. “You talk to your friends, and the salaries aren’t comparable.” But Taylor, who has been with the firm since she got her law degree from George Washington University in 1994, says the firm has been able to lure talented, dedicated associates with the sophistication of its practice and the diversity of its lawyers. Taylor knew in law school she wanted to be in court right away, and at Leftwich, “you’re given cases,” she says. “You’re not given assignments in a vacuum.” Partner Thomas Bridenbaugh, who joined the firm after graduating from American University’s Washington College of Law in 1991, agrees. “We don’t have people spending their first five years sitting in a library researching,” he says. Just as Taylor knew she wanted to work for a small firm as a litigator, Bridenbaugh also had a specific practice in mind while still a young lawyer. The real estate specialist wanted to “do good,” and he saw the opportunity at Leftwich to represent governments redeveloping blighted urban areas. Bridenbaugh, who has represented the Prince George’s County Housing Authority and nonprofit East Baltimore Development Inc., was able to grow his practice because of the firm’s focus on government rather than corporate clients in real estate. He has been the lead outside counsel for the new Washington Convention Center since building efforts began in 1996. “I wouldn’t be honest if I said when I was 23 I had this master plan,” he says. “[But] you observe these synergies.” Leftwich lawyers, including Ludaway, Bridenbaugh and Taylor, who all joined straight out of law school, are intensely loyal to the firm. “There isn’t anyone here who hasn’t made a choice to be here,” says Ludaway. “We think we have the best and the brightest.” What keeps them at the firm, she says, is the option to dabble in different practice groups and to handle a wide variety of matters. A Leftwich & Ludaway lawyer could be in court one day for Verizon and the next for a single mother seeking custody of her children. “Our mix of clients goes from Fortune 500 companies to nonprofits to individuals and to some government entities,” Ludaway says. Fourth-year associate Charniele Herring spends most of her time working on telecommunications matters. But Herring, who was named the 2002-04 Virginia State Young Careerist (an honor given to a successful young professional woman from each state), enjoys the criminal defense and child support cases that come her way. “The variety keeps me here,” she says. “I don’t get bored.” The firm’s commitment to pro bono and reduced-fee work began in the Leftwich days when it became one of the first law firms in the city to incorporate a nonprofit to help people with HIV and AIDS. “You have to give something back when you practice,” Leftwich says. Ludaway talks with the same energy about representing a mentally challenged man who says he was swindled when buying a used car as when she speaks about the firm’s high-profile clients. Ludaway says the firm’s lawyers are determined to make their services affordable to less-fortunate clients. “For some firms to handle a matter, they may ask for a $5,000 or $10,000 retainer. We ask for $1,000,” she says. “Otherwise, where would [lower income clients] go?” The firm’s corporate clients don’t seem to mind the dual focus. Sherry Bellamy, general counsel of Verizon’s D.C. operations, says the firm’s deep knowledge of telecommunications regulations and its connection to D.C. government has been indispensable in helping the company deal with telecom regulations in flux since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. “The firm is one that knows the District and knows how things work,” she says. “I don’t think there are a lot of firms in D.C. that know it as well.” That knowledge of the District proved to be equally as helpful when Segway came to the firm in 2001 with a challenge: The company wanted to know what laws would apply to its product without revealing details of the secret human transporter, even to its lawyers, before its December 2001 release. The Manchester, N.H.-based company hired law firms around the country to lobby for changes to local regulations that could prohibit the sale and use of the Segway. The company’s director of government affairs, Matthew Dailida, says Leftwich & Ludaway was instrumental in crafting “model legislation” for Segway regulation. “I’ve always said that our lobbyists and lawyers had the hardest job because they were not able to see the product,” says Dailida. But “using that little bit of information, Natalie and her team were able to put it together. They did a fantastic job.” Because of its talent and its ties to D.C. government, the firm has received its fair share of merger offers. But Ludaway and the partners have refused each and every one. They aren’t intimidated by the city’s giant law firms, some numbering almost 500 lawyers in the District alone, Ludaway says. “We do want to grow, of course. We do want more revenue, of course,” she says. But “my goal has never been size. My goal has been to produce quality work and to run a good business.” As for Leftwich, who’s now recovered from his cancer, he has delved fully into his pottery, and his all-or-nothing attitude helps explain his reluctance to even visit the firm he founded. Since he stepped down as managing partner, he has been back to its New York Avenue, N.W., office only once. “If I come back, I’m not going to leave,” Leftwich says. “I’d be back tomorrow morning at 6 o’clock.” But Leftwich left behind a legacy: Not only has he shaped many young African-American lawyers, his firm spawned several other minority-owned law firms prominent in their own right. “He was really a mentor,” says Joanne Doddy Fort, who left the firm in 1984 with several other lawyers to start what is now Jordan, Keys, Jessamy & Botts. “He took the time to teach a number of young lawyers.” Another Leftwich spinoff, Webster, Fredrickson & Brackshaw, recently settled a $550 million class action sexual discrimination case ongoing for more than 20 years. Leftwich didn’t start out in 1970 to build an African-American law firm, just a good one. “The secret is good people,” he says. “People were hiring us not because we’re a minority-owned firm, but because they believed we could do the work.” But those who have worked with him say his impact on minority lawyers in the District can’t be overestimated. “The number of African-American lawyers that have been trained by him, it’s really something,” says Ludaway. And Ludaway among them has succeeded Leftwich not only as the firm’s managing partner but also as its trainer of young talent. “Natalie’s just kind of everywhere,” says Doddy Fort. “She’s a role model for young African-American women lawyers.”

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