With only a card table and a telephone, lobbyist Emanuel "Manny" Rouvelas in 1973 opened a Wash­ington office that would later become part of K&L Gates. His mission was clear: Bring Seattle-based Preston, Thorgrimson, Ellis, Holman & Fletcher’s clients a new practice called "policy."

At the start of the shop’s 40th year, and tens of millions in lobby-practice revenues later, Rouvelas has replaced the card table with something a bit nicer.

Speaking around a sturdy conference room table in the firm’s K Street office, Rouvelas and two of his colleagues last week reflected on the shop’s four decades of operations. The founder, along with partner Jonathan Blank, the second lawyer to join the office, and government affairs counselor Darrell Conner, a co-coordinator of the firm’s public policy and law practice, shared stories of triumph and adversity, looking back at the people and the work that made the shop what it is today.

During the past four decades, the operation has grown to nearly 50 lobbyists with gross revenues of $68.7 million, according to 2011 statistics provided for the 2012 Influence 50, The National Law Journal‘s annual survey of the 50 highest-earning lobbying practices in Washington. With those earnings, the firm was at No. 5 on the list.

The trio spoke excitedly about successful projects that included a third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the creation of the first U.S.-financed clean water program for needy people abroad. They also discussed their challenges, such as the lessons they learned from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who worked at the firm from 1994 to 2000.

"History is a guide to the future," said Conner, who leads the public policy and law practice with partner Mark Ruge. "For us, we look backwards and say, ‘OK, what’s changed over the years, and how do we manage our change going forward?’ "

In 1973, Preston partner Gerald Grinstein, who would later serve as the chief executive officer of Delta Air Lines Inc., recruited a 28-year-old Rouvelas to open the firm’s second office, an outpost in D.C. Rouvelas previously had worked with Grinstein as maritime counsel for the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.

Until then, law firms generally looked to litigation as the only solution for their difficulties with the government, Rouvelas said. "The real issue was client service, and what’s the most effective, most efficient way to serve a client, to solve their problems," he said.

Rouvelas hit the ground running.

He quickly assembled a client roster that had several maritime clients, including what is now known as The Interlake Steamship Co., which remains a client.

About a year later, Blank, who had been based in Preston’s Seattle office, joined the Washington shop full-time after commuting back and forth. During the next four years, the office moved about five times in an effort to expand while keeping costs down.

Among the stops was a building that was slated for demolition. It proved a good place for a group of lawyers under 35 to practice their dart skills. "We just had a great time over there," Blank said. "We had a dartboard on a door, and it didn’t really matter whether you hit the board or hit the wall."

HOUSEHOLD NAME

By 1978, the D.C. office had about a half-dozen lawyers and plans to move to space sufficient to hold a projected 70 lawyers. "We clearly had our eye on very significant growth at that point," Blank said. "We decided it was time to try to break out."

A year later, Representative Lloyd Meeds (D-Wash.), who died in 2005, became the first former congressman to join the office. These days, the firm employs two former members: representatives James Walsh (R-N.Y.) and Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.).

Howard Marlowe, a former president of the American League of Lobbyists, the industry’s leading trade group, said Meeds was a valuable hire. He was impressed with the former congressman’s lobbying skills. "He knew the facts," said Marlowe, who founded his government relations firm Marlowe & Co. in 1984. "He knew what to do."

But 1980 was a "very special" year for the office, Rouvelas said. After the election of President Ronald Reagan and a Republican-controlled Senate, the Democratic-leaning firm "couldn’t get a phone call returned anywhere," he said.

Something had to change. "Starting then, we became religiously bipartisan," Rouvelas said.

In 1994, the firm hired an aspiring Republican lobbyist whose corruption would make him a household name.

As if on cue, the lights in the K&L Gates conference room darkened when the conversation turned to Abramoff, who worked at the firm until 2001, five years before he pleaded guilty to bribery, fraud and tax evasion charges and served three-and-a-half years in prison.

At Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, as the firm was then known, Abramoff received little supervision as he pulled in $3 million to $4 million a year from a handful of clients, earning anywhere from 20 percent to one-third of the firm’s lobbying revenue, depending on the year, Legal Times reported in 2005. Abramoff lavished lawmakers with gifts, including an infamous golf outing in Scotland for former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas).

"The greatest lesson you learn is that you just have to be extraordinarily intensive in the management of your practice," Blank said. "You have to just pay attention all the time and make hard decisions as they go along."

Rouvelas said a silver lining for the firm emerged following the Abramoff scandal. Preston Gates had a core-values program to remind clients and partners alike where it drew the line. And the firm lost not a single client or partner when the scandal broke.

"I think those core values, which were essentially integrity, service to clients and teamwork, ended up saving us in that process," Rouvelas said.

On the first Influence 50 list in 2005, the firm debuted at No. 13, pulling in $21.4 million in lobbying revenue from 36 lobbyists. It jumped to the fifth spot in 2007 with $37.3 million in lobbying revenue and 53 lobbyists. It has been in fifth or sixth place ever since.

Most recently, in 2012, the firm was registered to lobby for more than 175 clients, according to congressional records. At the top of the list were mortgage insurer Radian Group Inc., postal services provider Pitney Bowes Inc. and the U.S. Maritime Coalition. Radian and Pitney each gave the firm about $1.2 million, while the coalition paid $760,000.

Other firm clients include Starbucks Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and reusable-spacecraft manufacturer Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX."The [practice] group is on a path to sustainability for the long term," Conner said.

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld partner Smith Davis, a lobbyist at his firm since 1979, said the K&L Gates lobbying practice has a "great, top-flight" group of professionals. "It’s been a consistently high-quality shop that everybody’s enjoyed working with over the years," he said.

But the practice won’t have Blank to help anymore. He retired last week.

As for Rouvelas, who is 68, retirement isn’t on the horizon yet. "I’m still having fun," he said.

Andrew Ramonas can be reached at aramonas@alm.com.