Dealmaker in the District is the ‘best (lawyer) I have seen,’ ex-boss declares

Ivan Schlager is not your typical lobbyist. He probably spent more time in New York last year than on Capitol Hill.
“My role in what I do is not traditional lobbying,” Schlager said. “I think a lot of the times you see a disconnect between New York and Washington, and I spend most of my time trying to bridge that disconnect.”

As a partner at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, Schlager has worked on some of the biggest mergers and acquisitions of the last six years: the merger of Time Warner Inc. and America Online Inc.; Toshiba Corporation’s purchase of Westinghouse Electric Company LLC; and the recent joining of French telecom company Alcatel and Lucent Technologies, Inc.

In all, the Skadden Arps partner has worked on close to 20 accounts, which took in more than $6.8 million in lobby fees for the firm since 2000, according to Senate records.

A word of wisdom after all that deal-making? “It is much more important to figure out before a transaction what the regulatory issues are,” Schlager said. “We are hired to do the deal soup-to-nuts. That’s our competitive advantage.”
Plus, he said, “Thanks to the BlackBerry, I am never actually outside the office.”

Despite his recent sojourns to Manhattan, Schlager has been based in Washington for most of the past two decades. A 1987 Georgetown Law graduate, he joined Congress as an attorney in late 1989 after leaving Buchalter Nemer Fields & Younger in his hometown of Los Angeles.

“He came back to work for me at half his salary,” former Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat who stepped down in 2004, said. “He is a smart, smart lawyer and a damn, damn good politician. It is very unusual you find that in one person.”

Hollings and Schlager worked together years earlier in New Hampshire during the senator’s 1984 White House campaign. “And he asked me, ‘Do you mind if I campaign for you?’ I said, ‘Not at all, I need all the help I can get,’” Hollings recalled.

“Well, David Broder summed it up best: He was the best unmanaged candidate of the field. Everything about him was real,” Schlager said of Hollings’s 1984 presidential campaign. “I was just a young kid who ended up traveling with him, doing what ever a 22-year-old kid would do on a presidential campaign.”

Schlager took some time away from Northwestern University to follow the campaign trail. He had enrolled at the school with intentions of studying journalism, but the race “really cemented the bug” for politics and law, he said.
“Like every election, people who were doing interesting things in politics, they almost all had legal backgrounds,” Schlager said. “I like the discipline and the training.”

Schlager was the first person in his family to go to college. His father, a World War II veteran and building contractor, was “a political junkie,” Schlager said. “That’s where I probably got it from.”

Like politics, his Midwest alma mater is a passion for Schlager, and he serves on one of the school’s boards. His allegiance to Northwestern also once presented him with a particularly tough choice: witness the Wildcats’ showing in the 1996 Rose Bowl or be present for the birth of his first child, due on game day. Schlager chose to stay by his pregnant wife’s side, though she “was two weeks late or three weeks late. But it was still the right decision.”

Schlager says he learned lots as a staffer for Hollings, then chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “The best preparation for what I do now is the critical thinking I learned under Fritz Hollings,” he said.

For the next nine years, the lawyer worked for the committee, becoming chief counsel and staff director before leaving for Skadden Arps in 1999. “I think I stayed as long as I did because every day I went to work with him, I had a great day,” Schlager said.

Schlager has represented foreign companies when they have merged with or acquired American assets and recognizes how high the stakes can be. A case in point is the recent Dubai Ports controversy.

“So you have seen throughout its history, competitors or losing bidders use the [Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States] process as a mechanism to try to undo a deal,” Schlager said.

The mergers Schlager facilitates often run up against motivated opposition. “What you try to do is anticipate what the argument is going to be and how to counter the argument,” he said. “You have to have your PR side put together. The legal battles are sometimes the easiest part of it.”

“Ivan is great to have as an ally and a formidable foe,” Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal and international affairs at the Consumers Union, wrote in an e-mail to The Hill. “He is one of a long line of Hollings-trained, exceptionally skilled Washington operatives.”

While working under Hollings, Schlager befriended another presidential aspirant: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
“Ivan is one in 10 million,” Kerry said in an e-mail. “Fritz Hollings saw him as a son; I saw him as a slightly younger brother.”

The lawyer was a senior adviser to the Massachusetts senator’s 2004 presidential campaign and raised more than $100,000 for the run.

His best memories of the campaign hark back to the Iowa caucuses, especially the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Cedar Rapids the weekend before the polling.

“Kerry came in and just gave this fantastic speech. And it lit the crowd up,” Schlager recalled. “You had this sense that something was going to happen.”

“On Caucus Night in Iowa, having worked several weeks and seeing Sen. John Kerry at 5 points in the poll, Ivan had this sense of growing momentum,” another Skadden Arps partner who advised and raised funds for Kerry’s campaign, Leslie Goldman, said.

“This guy took time off from his firm and showed up in Iowa in ripped faded jeans to give it his all when I was down 30 points in the caucus polls,” Kerry said of Schlager. “He was the first person to high-five me when those winning results came in.”

Schlager agreed with Kerry’s choice to forgo the 2008 race. “He made the right decision,” Schlager said. “But it was sad because John has a lot to offer.”

With Kerry out, Schlager would not commit to other Democratic presidential contenders, other than saying, “What I am thinking about for ’08 is this: We have got a terrific field.”

Whether he advises another candidate or not, Schlager’s skills are valued highly by his peers.

“You have a lot of good political operatives there in Washington but not many good lawyers,” Hollings said. “He’s the best I have seen.”