The Washington, D.C., legal market capitalized on America’s thriving economy and the uncertainty wrought by President Donald Trump’s government to boost revenue last year.
Among firms ranked in the Second Hundred, Arent Fox, Buckley Sandler and Wiley Rein all showed revenue growth, while Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner effectively stayed flat—slipping 0.2 percent and falling two places in this year’s rankings to 107.
No Second Hundred firm in Washington saw its partner profits dip last year, with Arent Fox leading the way yet again. The firm has grown its profits each and every year since 2009, and its financial performance across the board has the firm creeping closer toward the top 100—moving up four spots to 109 this year.
D.C. mainstays in the Am Law 100 performed even stronger in terms of revenue growth in 2017. Covington & Burling, Williams & Connolly and Venable all saw climbing revenues and all rose in the rankings, while Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld recorded strong performances once again. Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, fresh off the merger of the legacy D.C. firm and its New York counterpart, saw its revenue rise, too.
“I think all of us have been surprised by just how robust the market is,” says Jeffrey Lowe, Major, Lindsey & Africa managing partner in D.C.
Lowe, a leading national recruiter, says the market appeared to be in a holding pattern after Trump’s unexpected win, but things began to take off last year.
Philip West, chairman of Steptoe & Johnson, says the regular rhythms of a market tied closely to the federal government have served Washington lawyers well.
“I think D.C. is a stable and strong legal market to be based in,” West says. “We can count on a fair degree of stability and at least industry-matching, if not above-average, growth.”
The highs may not be as high, he suggests, but there’s less volatility in comparison to San Francisco, with its focus on the technology sector, or New York, with its reliance on the capital markets and deals. Even as Steptoe fell two slots to 96 in this year’s Am Law 100, West says he remains “cautiously optimistic” about the future.
One sign of Washington’s healthy market is a counterpoint to that stability: a frenzy of lateral hiring over the last year or so.
Even more than the Trump administration, the volume of lateral partner moves has been the “major disruptive factor” in the D.C. legal market, says Jeff Grossman of Wells Fargo’s Legal Specialty Group. Grossman says the pace is at a “greater level than we’ve ever seen in the past,” with firms also attempting to lure in top talent with higher compensation than ever before.
Partners without a book of business, as is the case with many Washington lawyers and lobbyists who leave government for private practice, are in high demand, too, Grossman notes—especially amid the regulatory, legislative and trade turmoil of the president’s first year-and-a-half in office.
Tony Pierce, the partner in charge of Akin Gump’s D.C. office, says uncertainty surrounding the new administration drove activity for the firm, and issues of trade, taxation and health care will keep lawyers busy.
Akin Gump, which ranked 29 again on this year’s Am Law 100, watched its partner profits soar 13.5 percent, with the firm benefiting from new deals and its lobbying efforts.
Pierce notes that the deregulation brought by the Trump administration has created many new opportunities that Akin Gump is looking to seize. Its offices are set to move from the Dupont Circle neighborhood in 2019, and he says the firm’s lobbyists are excited about their new address on K Street, the city’s oft-maligned lobbying hub.
“I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a pejorative,” Pierce jokes.