The top federal political action committees for law firms pumped just as much money into the 2012 election cycle as four years ago but channeled a larger chunk of their money away from Congress and toward state lawmakers across the country.

The 20 highest-spending law firm PACs reported almost $9 million in contributions to party leadership committees, congressional candidates and state elections during the past two years, a higher total than the previous two presidential election-year cycles, records from the Federal Election Commission show. By comparison, the 20 highest-spending firms during the 2008 election cycle injected $8.5 million into the elections, a big jump from the $5.2 million the top 20 firms spent in 2004, the records show.

Federal PACs sponsored by law firms have traditionally been used to contribute to federal candidates and political parties, with smaller, separate state PACs to funnel money to candidates at the state level. This year, however, several law firms significantly expanded the amount of money flowing through their federal PACs by using them to contribute to state committees.

That state-level spending — listed as “other expenditures” by the FEC — accounted for more than $1 million of the 2012 cycle contributions, and is how McGuireWoods leapfrogged over traditional big spenders like DLA Piper and SNR Denton to become the largest law or lobbying firm federal PAC this cycle.

Greenberg Traurig also jumped up the list this election cycle because of its spending in state races. The firm became the second-biggest spender with $831,097, twice the amount the firm reported spending to the FEC in 2004. Almost all of that growth comes from $348,912 in distributions to state committees and political parties, including $175,250 in New York and $108,300 in Texas. A firm spokesman declined comment, other than to say the growth in the federal PAC likely reflects “the overall growth of the firm, the growth of specific markets and political activity there.”

Market Driven

McGuireWoods, which also has a lobbying and consulting arm, sent a total of $985,307 to candidates, three times as much as it spent through its federal PAC in 2004. State-level distributions to candidates, committees and political organizations represented $701,745 of the firm’s spending, including $197,250 in North Carolina-based candidates or groups, $176,898 to those based in Illinois, and $71,231 to those in Georgia, FEC records state.

The president of McGuireWoods Consulting, former Representative L.F. Payne, D-Virginia, said the firm decided to use the federal PAC for state contributions “for reasons of control.” He said the growth of the firm’s PAC follows the growth of the firm generally, which has mostly been in the state capitals.

“As we have entered new markets, we’ve realized if we want to succeed in those markets we need to make contributions to the officials there,” Payne said. “I think what we’re looking at is building relationships. This hasn’t been the entire strategy, but part of the strategy.”

Like almost all law and lobbying PACs, Payne said McGuireWoods took an essentially balanced approach to sending support to Democrats and Republicans.

Some Cutbacks

At the same time, federal law firm PACs that have traditionally been the most generous curtailed their spending this cycle.

DLA Piper had the top-spending PAC in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010, but the amount the PAC distributes has shrunk every cycle since 2006. This cycle, the firm’s PAC fell to fourth after spending $734,780, 25 percent less than its 2004 distributions.

Still, William Minor, a partner at DLA Piper who runs the firm’s PAC, said the firm’s overall contribution numbers have been “fairly steady,” and the firm’s federal PAC filings do not reflect all the firm does at the state and local level. The firm has three state PACs, and those contributions do not appear in the federal PAC’s records.

“The total we give is not the number we focus on or care about, it’s how effective our contributions are and how well they support our firm, our clients and our community,” Minor said. “Unlike some of the other firms, we’re a global firm and in the U.S. we have a substantial presence all over the United States.”

SNR Denton, which ranked second in PAC spending in the 2004 and 2008 election cycles, also cut back on the spending from its federal PAC. The $370,500 spent in this cycle is less than half of the $861,752 it spent in 2008. A firm spokesman declined to comment.

The most generous law and lobbying firm PACs aren’t just thinking about the election. They contributed to the campaign committees of influential pols who weren’t even up for re-election in 2012, including those supporting House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

And the PACs heavily favored incumbents. For example, Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, received more money than her challenger, Representative Todd Akin, R-Missouri, while Senator Scott Brown, R-Massachusetts, received more than the Democratic challenger who beat him, Elizabeth Warren.

To determine the donation totals, the National Law Journal used data from the FEC’s website, including committee contributions and other distributions made through Oct. 17.

Good Investment

Looking only at federal law firm PACs does not give a complete accounting of which firms spent the most during the election. State PAC disclosure laws vary widely, making estimates of law firm PAC contributions to state PACs difficult. And many politically connected firms — such as Venable, Wiley Rein and Williams & Connolly — do not have federal PACs.

Still, law and lobbying firms with some of the largest federal PACs say the committees have remained a good investment. It may have been the year of the “super PAC” when the ability to donate any amount of money was predicted to help make this the most expensive presidential general election ever at $6 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But super PACs cannot contribute directly to or coordinate with a candidate’s campaigns or political parties.

“I still think traditional PACs are still of great value, because [this is] the hard money candidates can use directly for their campaigns and elections,” Minor said. “I think the surprising trend is PACs are almost more important than ever.”