Ethics- and election-lawyers’ business on the rise

With even more ethics legislation due to sweep through Congress, Washington law firms have been holding near-daily briefings for clients — or creating entire new practices — to help those on K Street and beyond sort out the new rules.
“For those us who have been in it for a while, I think it has moved beyond a cottage industry. The cottage is building wings on it, or at least the second story,” said Kenneth Gross, who advises Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom clients on regulation of political activity.

Gross said his practice is staffed by 15 lawyers and client specialists — a 50 percent increase in just two years. “Let’s put it this way: We are hiring due to the increase in the amount of work,” Gross said.
Fortune 500 executives, political action committee members and lobbyists are lining up for tips on how ethics legislation will affect their operations here.

“Busy. Busy is good,” Timothy Jenkins, a partner at O’Connor & Hannan LLP who specializes in election and ethics law, said when asked about his workload.

Jenkins has taken on several new clients as well: “I have had about a 20 percent increase since mid-December,” he said.

“It is definitely a growth in the election law and government ethics field. There is definitely more work today than there has ever been before,” a former Federal Election Commission (FEC) chairman, Michael Toner, said. Toner last week announced he was joining Bryan Cave LLP to create an election-law group.

Toner, who served as general counsel for the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign and the Republican National Committee before joining the FEC, expects to focus on ethics and advocacy issues, advising the firm’s lobbying subsidiary, Bryan Cave Strategies.

“In an operating world, people want to make sure that they have good, strategic legal counsel at the table when they are making decisions in regard to policy and politics. He will be a huge asset to any strategic team,” said Jack Oliver, Bryan Cave Strategies’ chairman and a former RNC colleague of Toner’s.

“There is just more work out there ... I think more firms are going to do more of it,” a Bryan Cave LLP partner in the Washington office, Rodney Page, said when asked why the firm is now establishing an election- and ethics-law practice. “We do see, as everyone does, more money coming through the system and the increasing complexity of the law.”

In addition to Toner, several other FEC officials recently have entered the private sector. Scott Thomas, another past FEC chairman, joined the law firm Dickstein Shapiro in 2006. Lawrence Norton and James Kahl, who served as general counsel and deputy general counsel, respectively, at the FEC, announced they were joining Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in January 2007. Melissa Laurenza, Toner’s former counsel and policy adviser at the agency, has joined Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

In interviews with The Hill, lawyers said recent changes to election law, as well as proposals for new ethics rules and lobbying law, are the reasons behind their good business at the moment.

“The FEC has been much more aggressive in recent years, as well as the Department of Justice. The penalties for election-law infractions significantly increased under McCain-Feingold,” Toner said. “Combined with the new ethics rules in the House and the Senate, it’s a whole new ballgame.”

“Any time you get a change in the rules in the game, whether it is campaign finance or lobbying, it is inevitable that those practices that specialize in those areas are going to be in high demand,” said a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Thomas Mann, who has written extensively about campaign-finance law.

Gross’s days have been busy, to say the least.

“I am traveling quite a bit. Some of these cities I have never even heard of,” Gross said. The ethics expert has been to Florida, Illinois, New York and New Jersey to conduct sessions with clients.

Jan Baran, a partner at Wiley Rein LLP who heads the election law and government ethics group, said his firm is “providing briefings and compliance presentations on virtually a daily basis.”

Ethics lawyers said their briefings, some with PowerPoint presentations and lengthy question-and-answer sessions, always mention the Senate and House gift rules. Depending on the client, there is also talk of a refresher course with lobbying law and potential legislative changes down the road.

Baran said his practice has tripled over the past decade or so. “It has been good. I have a lot of young lawyers with growing families, and their professional futures look bright,” Baran said.

Toner once was one of Baran’s lawyers, starting his law career at Wiley Rein in the early 1990s. “I learned an awful lot from Jan,” Toner said.