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Law firm balance sheets took big hits this election year, as politically active firms filled campaign coffers at an unprecedented rate. Despite new rules designed to reduce the influence of big money in politics, the cover charge to play in Washington, D.C., only increased in 2004. This was the first presidential race governed by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, passed in 2002. Championed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the law banned unregulated and unlimited soft money contributions and doubled the amount of hard money an individual could contribute — to $2,000 per candidate. As a result, many expected to see political contributions decline. But donors simply dug new tunnels. In a departure from previous cycles, law firms launched or expanded their political action committees, while individual lawyers took advantage of the increased limits and donated more to federal candidates. To gauge that giving, The American Lawyer asked the Center for Responsive Politics to sort donation records of the Federal Election Commission by law firm. The result was current as of Oct. 25 (a fairly accurate snapshot, given that presidential candidates were by then receiving only public finance). Am Law 100 firms gave a total of $31,246,609 — an increase of more than $8 million from the $23,099,587 they gave in 1999-2000, and more than double the combined donations in the previous election cycle. In 2003-04, Am Law 100 firms gave Democrats $19,109,508 and Republicans $12,053,104. The biggest donations came from firms entrenched in lobbying and government relations, many of which doubled their 2000 donations. Many of the highest revenue Am Law 100 firms fell into the middle of the pack, with contributions only slightly higher than 1992. Of the 10 firms that gave most, seven were listed by our sibling publication Influence as among the top 15 grossing lobbying shops for 2003. These included the megafirm now known as DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and Greenberg Traurig. Each donated about $1.4 million to candidates and parties, as did Blank Rome, a Philadelphia firm that has been trying to leverage its Bush administration ties to become a D.C. player. The only exceptions among the top 10 were Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Dallas-based plaintiffs firm Baron & Budd. Skadden has been a top-ten giver since at least 1992, where our record search began. In 1992 big general practice firms ranked much higher than now. For example, Jones Day ranked third, with donations totaling $481,262, and Sullivan & Cromwell was eighth at $254,050. During the past three cycles, most of these firms maintained the same level of giving, but other firms doubled and even tripled their contributions. Many partners in lobbying practices think big political contributions are the cost of doing business in Washington. In this environment, firm political action committees become an important business tool. PACs can give $5,000 per candidate and $15,000 to national party committees, significantly more than individuals. With the new law eliminating soft money, U.S. congressional and presidential candidates — and the parties — started to count more than ever on PACs. Among the top 10 givers, only DLA Piper and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal channeled more than half their donations through a PAC. DLA Piper’s PAC was the largest, topping the list at $781,796, nearly four times what Piper Rudnick and Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand gave in combined donations in 2000 (the two firms merged in September 2002). DLA Piper’s increases also demonstrate another D.C. trend. During the past four years, more Am Law 100 firms have entered the government relations field, swallowing up lobbying boutiques. Within that world, Patton Boggs managing partner Stuart Pape says contributions don’t guarantee increased access. But he thinks donations, particularly from a PAC, improve newbies’ name recognition because the gifts come under the firm name. That’s why DLA Piper and Sonnenschein, two firms with growing government affairs practices, relied on PACs. “If you’re trying to move up the visibility scale, which is part of developing a successful practice here, giving helps you,” says Pape. Well-established lobbying shops such as Patton Boggs give “more as a sense to meet expectations.” Pape adds that the firm tries to make its donations at big fund-raising events, often held at the firm’s offices, where personal connections can be furthered. But in most firms, individual donations dwarfed the PAC giving. At 84 of the Am Law 100 firms, lawyers gave more than $100,000 in individual contributions, sparked by a potent combination of the higher caps and the close presidential race. Lobbying firms again dominated this category. Blank Rome lawyers gave the most, a whopping $1,390,270 — $933,490 more than in 2000 and $1,274,608 more than in 1996. Perhaps it’s not surprising, given that the firm’s chairman, David Girard-diCarlo, is a Bush “Ranger,” having raised more than $200,000 for the president in each election. Greenberg’s Fred Baggett, who runs the firm’s lobbying practice, says his group draws in the rest of the firm. “We have an active government practice in about 15 of our 22 domestic offices,” he says. “These lawyers are going to enthuse their partners and talk up the value of participation.” The firm’s lawyers quadrupled their 2000 donations, giving $945,913 this year; the PAC’s increase over the same period was not nearly as great, only doubling its contributions to $342,128. Personal contributions to presidential candidates are also where firms show their collective preferences. Most of the Am Law 100′s individual contributions skewed Democratic. Three firms with major Kerry fund-raisers on their rolls gave the most to the challenger: Skadden; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; and DLA Piper [see "Top Firm Givers"]. Mintz, Levin, Cohen, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, where Kerry’s brother Cameron is a partner, gave $140,901 to Kerry and just $13,250 to Bush. And, of course, with a trial lawyer on the ticket, some plaintiffs firms practically bled money, with Baron & Budd lawyers giving more than $1 million, just $15,250 of which went to Republicans. Name partner Fred Baron served as co-chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Kerry Victory ’04. Second among plaintiffs firms was another Texas outfit, Reaud, Morgan & Quinn, which contributed $409,500, with just $42,000 to the GOP. There were some big GOP leaners, led by Blank Rome: Texas firms Vinson & Elkins and Haynes and Boone; Chicago’s Winston and Strawn; and Houston’s Baker Botts, home to well-known Bush loyalist James Baker III. But what was most remarkable about the donations in this election cycle was simply their sheer size. Patton Boggs gave $780,890 more in 2004 than in 1992, and Akin Gump increased giving by $600,546. So what did it all buy? Maybe nothing more than an increased possibility of access. But, says Patton Boggs’ Page, “If you are or aspire to be a player, then you just have to play.” Related chart: Top Firm Givers

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