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For former Illinois Governor James Thompson, the choice was easy. When he stepped down from office in 1991, after an unprecedented four terms, he didn’t want to “become a hood ornament or be seduced by the notion of a corner office.” He wanted to do real substantive work for a Chicago law firm. “I interviewed with 10 law firms and all 10 made offers to me,” Thompson recalls. “One offered to change the name of the firm to include mine. All of them offered more money than Winston [& Strawn] but Winston offered me the earliest chance for leadership.” As promised, two years after joining, he became chair of the firm, which he has helped triple in size to nearly 900 lawyers and grow its gross revenue to $461 million in 2003, according to the most recent Am Law 100 survey. Out-of-office politicians — including 85-year-old Hugh Carey, former Democratic governor of New York (1975-82), an array of Congress members and former Vice President Walter Mondale — can be found at law firms around the country. The roles they play vary: Some serve as rainmakers and lobbyists; others help their firm and its clients gain access to foreign government agencies; some lead seminars and, sometimes, they even go to court. Often, though, their assignment is to, well, just be themselves. Their value is that these lawyers know the elaborate process being getting things accomplished, and the key players who can do it. Whether it’s local, state or federal politics, these individuals help open doors, so that law firms can both advance their clients’ interests and attract new business. A politician’s Rolodex can be as crucial as his or her star power. LIKE RUNNING A STATE Thompson’s leadership of Winston & Strawn, where he worked briefly before becoming Republican governor, is unusual. More often former elected officials are brought on board more for their title and networking possibilities, rather than to play a day-to-day management role. Thompson not only leads Winston & Strawn, but he still maintains an active practice. He also does some lobbying and rainmaking in political and government circles: “It lets me keep my hand in politics and serve clients,” he says. He served on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (a.k.a. the 9/11 Commission). One of his fellow commissioners was former Republican U.S. senator from Washington, Slade Gordon, who is now of counsel at Preston, Gates & Ellis in Seattle. Despite his management responsibilities, Thompson is still very much involved in the big cases. As this issue went to press he was scheduled to argue a case before the Illinois Supreme Court — his firm represents Philip Morris USA Inc. in the $12 billion consumer class-action suit against Big Tobacco. ( Sharon Price, et al. v. Philip Morris Inc.) All told, Thompson finds that running Winston & Strawn is similar in some respects to running the state of Illinois. “Law firms can be political places,” he says. “They just change the names of the groups. [Instead of] legislators, the press, lobbyists and voters; you’re dealing with partners and clients. It requires some political skills, especially building consensus. Lawyers will admit that they are notoriously difficult to manage.” One such managing challenge came a few years into his tenure as the firm’s chair, in 1994, when after an internal investigation Winston’s former managing partner, Gary Fairchild, pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $750,000 from the firm and clients. Fairchild served 21 months in prison and was disbarred. Despite such challenges, big and small, and some 13 years after taking over the leadership role, 68-year-old Thompson’s given no indication that he’s ready to slow down. His partners have twice amended the firm’s bylaws to extend his term as chair, which now runs through 2006. RETURNING HOME The 2002 United States Senate race in Minnesota pitted attorneys from two of the state’s largest law firms against one another — Dorsey & Whitney, and Winthrop & Weinstine. Of course, to the voters, their choice was between Walter Mondale, former vice president and the unsuccessful 1984 Democratic nominee for president, and Norm Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul and the unsuccessful Republican nominee for governor in 1998. Mondale was drafted out of his Dorsey office — where he’d been since 1987, save for three years as U.S. ambassador to Japan — to run for the seat of senator Paul Wellstone, who died in an airplane crash two weeks before the election. Coleman, by contrast, was widely seen as making a pit stop at Winthrop & Weinstine between political gigs. Mondale, a former U.S. senator, appeared to be reversing course. He had returned to Minnesota after having spent two decades in Washington, D.C. and losing the presidential election. Mondale contacted Dorsey because he had friends there and admired the firm. “I love the law practice,” he says. “I like being a lawyer. I like being around lawyers.” His job is not easily defined. “I don’t do trial work. I don’t do the detailed, complex lawyering that others do here,” explains Mondale, 76, who has cut back his traveling since he became senior counsel last year. And he doesn’t do any lobbying. “I was not interested in getting into a hard-charging, high-bucks, intense kind of relationship. I do it my way.” Among the things he has done at Dorsey is open government doors in Shanghai so the firm could set up an office there — which it did in 2001. As the former U.S. ambassador to Japan under President Clinton, Mondale brings his expertise on Asian matters to bear in consultations with other Dorsey lawyers and clients. Mondale sits on several civic boards and he’s also a director of the investment firm, BlackRock Financial Management. He speaks regularly at colleges and universities in the Twin Cities; he has been a fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He plays an important role in planning Dorsey’s annual corporate counsel symposium for the firm’s general counsel clients, by lining up and introducing guest speakers such as former President Jimmy Carter, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and, this year, CNN anchor Aaron Brown. Such connections shouldn’t be taken to imply that Minnesota’s homegrown political star is particularly glamorous. “Glamour in Minnesota is kind of a contradiction, and he doesn’t fight that contradiction,” observes Peter Hendrixson, Dorsey’s managing partner. “He wears a sweater. He’s got his feet up on his desk. He’s just a normal guy.” One of Mondale’s roles is putting on a suit and showing up at events on behalf of Dorsey and just being Walter Mondale. “He brings unbelievable luster to our group,” Hendrixson says. ROCK STAR PERKS At 81, former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole is “very astute, energetic and active,” says Frank “Rusty” Conner, partner-in-charge of the Washington D.C. office of Alston & Bird, which hired Dole in January 2003. The former senator (whose wife Elizabeth is now a North Carolina senator) hasn’t practiced law since he left Kansas for Congress in 1960. For Atlanta-based Alston & Bird, he carries the title of special counsel. “People wonder: Does he really work there?” Conner reports. “He comes in every single day if he’s not traveling. He has a substantive practicing role and there is a role as ambassador. He has been instrumental in helping to develop our health-care practice, our sovereign government practice and other areas of our public-policy practice.” “He’s very, very good at developing strategic advice as to how to approach a given issue,” adds Conner. “He has access equal to none. You put those two together, he clearly is a formidable practitioner for his clients.” But Conner says that Dole’s approach isn’t centered on pressing the flesh. “He does not go to the Hill very often. He does not go and knock on doors of his former colleagues. He’s more behind the scenes with the client trying to figure out the best strategic approach.” Dole also serves as an ambassador for the expanding Alston, speaking at dinners or huddling with client CEOs. “He does it all,” Conner assesses. “We benefit from his visibility more so than some firms would as far as improving our national visibility and certainly our visibility in the Washington area.” In return, Dole reportedly makes more than $1 million annually, according to The Washington Post. Plus he gets a few perks, such as bringing his own staff to the firm, including his own press secretary. By contrast, Mondale has a “partner-size office,” and a secretary who predated him at the firm, according to his boss in Minneapolis. When Dole left politics in 1996 for Verner Liipfert Bernhard McPherson and Hand, he reportedly landed a 10-room suite of offices for the staff he brought with him. Verner — which was acquired by Piper Rudnick in October 2002 — gained attention at the time for the so-called “rock stars” on board: former Democratic Texas Governor Ann Richards and former U.S. senators Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, George Mitchell, D-Maine, and Dole, R-Kan. But big names don’t necessarily translate into big bucks for big firms. “I would be surprised if it ever produces a real economic benefit,” says Clay Mulford, a former resident fellow of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, who was Ross Perot’s campaign manager in 1996 and now is a partner at Jones Day in Dallas. “I think it’s more the intangibles of a marquee name that binds current clients or provides greater services to them by providing a lobbying connection and opening doors.” Mitchell, the former Democratic majority leader, and former Democratic Michigan governor James Blanchard came over from Verner to Piper Rudnick. Piper Rudnick recently announced its merger with Gray Cary Ware and Freidenrich that will become effective on Jan. 1. The new firm will be known as Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. This year, the aggressively expanding firm hired Mitchell’s Republican counterpart from the House of Representatives, Dick Armey, as a senior policy advisor. “Although not a lawyer, he draws on his unique experience as majority leader of the House of Representatives,” says John Zentay, chair of the federal affairs and legislation practice group. DIFFERENT SIDES OF THE AISLE With former political party leaders Armey and Mitchell now working at the same firm, might their political differences get in the way? It shouldn’t be a problem according to former congress member Tom Barrett, D-Wis., who knows firsthand that politicians from opposite sides of the aisle can work side-by-side. In 2002, while still in office, Barrett sought the Democratic nomination for governor of Wisconsin. The state’s Republican party chair Richard Graber was harshly critical of the candidate, especially his missing a House of Representatives vote while he was campaigning. Not only did Barrett not win the nomination, he ended up at Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren in Milwaukee working with Graber. How did the heated campaign affect Barrett’s relationship with Graber? “Not one iota,” says Barrett, 51, who this year became mayor of Milwaukee. “I understood his role [as] the advocate for the Republicans. In most law firms, the number one issue is making money — and I don’t mean that in a negative sense — and a recognition that it’s important to have people who can talk to people from both parties. My experience with large firms is that they’re far more pragmatic than ideological.” Graber, president and CEO of Reinhart, has great praise for what Barrett brought to the regional firm of more than 180 lawyers. At the time it was trying to set up its government relations practice and the ex-Congress member had the requisite cache and wherewithal within Washington circles. “If you’re going to be a larger firm in a market like this, you have to be able to do more than the traditional law,” Graber points out. “You have to be more of a full-service shop, you’ve got larger and larger clients to service, and part of the way you do that is to be able to open up doors at political levels.” NOT ABOUT BILLABLE HOURS In the government relations area, it’s not necessarily about billable hours, Graber explains. “A 15-minute phone call from Tom Barrett could have a whole lot more value than a traditional 15 minutes of work drafting a contract. I’m not denigrating drafting a contract. But it’s having that access to accomplish something very quickly on behalf of your client that can have tremendous value that clients are willing to pay for.” Indeed, that may be the key value of many of the politicians at law firms: greasing the wheels of government. Knowing which agency or committee chair to call. Making that crucial introduction. Cutting red tape and turning it into green. With Mondale at Dorsey, it has never been about how many hours he bills, says the firm’s Hendrixson. “It’s very intangible. It’s worth every penny and more, and we’re happy that we’re not trying to measure it in the commercial sense.” That kind of value is why prominent politicians are often hired by law firms at a premium compared to lateral partners. But not all politicians are created equally. After leaving Congress after five terms and missing out on the Wisconsin governorship, Barrett had to provide for his four young children and homemaker wife, he says. His salary at Reinhart was not at a premium, he points out, adding “I’m not complaining about the pay, but it wasn’t as though I was coming in as a megastar.” When Norm Coleman came up short in his race for Minnesota governor against Jesse Ventura, he had to look out for his wife and two teenage children. “He’s not a fellow who was able to run for politics because he’s an enormously wealthy guy; he’s been a fellow who has essentially subsisted as a public servant almost his entire professional career,” says Robert Weinstine, cofounder of Winthrop & Weinstine, which hired Coleman. Coleman worked for more than 20 years in the Minnesota attorney general’s office before becoming mayor of St. Paul. Some observers were cynical about Coleman’s year-long stint at Winthrop. “It was a more naked approach than usual; everyone knew Norm was going to run for senator and Winthrop was a very short resting place for him,” observes Steve Kaplan, editor of Minnesota Law & Politics, a bimonthly journal. Still, at a salary of $140,000, Coleman was “probably underpaid,” Kaplan maintains. Knowing that Coleman would be running for Senate, Weinstine didn’t feel it was patronage hiring the politician. “You hire lawyers, you don’t hire people who are greeters or somebody whose father owns XYZ company and will bring that business to the firm,” says Weinstine, who considers himself a friend and adviser to now senator Coleman. “He opened lots of doors,” says Weinstine. “Lots of people who liked him in public life liked him in private life and came to him for legal work. He brought in clients. He brought name recognition to our firm and enhanced our prestige. He was a real contributor.” Weinstine understands the value of having a once-and-future politician at his firm. And he also understands how valuable it is for an ex-office holder to be working at a law firm. “In retrospect, the worst decision that Al Gore ever made in his life: he didn’t finish law school,” Weinstine opines. “Think about it. He had to settle for a visiting professorship at Columbia [University]. If he had a law degree, he’d probably be making over a million dollars with a firm in D.C.” Jon Bream is a reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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