Feature

Paying Politics

When it comes to campaign donations, lawyers lead the pack

Posted Nov 1, 2007 2:16 PM CDT
By G.M. Filisko

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Contributions of 25 law firms by party and candidate.

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It may read like it, but the following is not a paid political announcement: Steven Zager, a Houston-based partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, sees himself as a lifelong “Tennessee Repub­li­can,” who he says are “moderates and are more like statesmen.”

But he’s now a convert—and campaign contribution collector—to a Democratic candidate’s cause.

It’s the first time in his life he’s become active in a presidential campaign, and it all started when a longtime friend—a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois—encouraged Zager to attend a breakfast to meet the candidate. Zager resisted, even though he wasn’t happy with today’s divisive political climate.

When Zager’s friend goaded him by saying, “When was the last time you had a chance to meet a black man who might just be president one day?” Zager relented.

“I went to the breakfast, and Obama was mightily impressive,” Zager says. “So I volunteered to step up in any way I could.”

Zager is not the only Akin Gump lawyer to catch political fever, nor is his the only firm. Lawyers are now the biggest contributors to 2008 presidential candidates, and they’ve given dramatically more than the next largest group of contributors, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based campaign finance watchdog group.

As of June 30 (the most recent data available), lawyers had contributed $54.8 million to 2008 presidential candidates, including their parties’ presidential campaign funds, while the next largest category of contributors—retirees—contributed $41.5 million, according to CRP data.

When only contributions directly to the candidates are totaled, the lawyers’ $29 million was still on top.

That’s a shift from the 2004 federal campaign’s final numbers (which include both presidential and congressional campaigns), when both retirees and lawyers gave roughly $184 million each, but retirees gave about $100,000 more. Lawyers and law firms gave a total of $53,657,837 to presidential candidates (29 percent of all contributions), with $41,925,325 going to Democratic candidates and $11,628,921 going to President George W. Bush, a 75-25 split.

Democratic candidates are benefiting a bit more from lawyers’ largesse this campaign season, garnering a 77-23 split, according to CRP data. Law firm contributions to each of the top three recipients, all Democrats, more than double such contributions to the leading Repub­lican recipient. Former Sen. John Edwards led lawyer contributions with $6.55 million, but Sen. Hillary Clinton and Obama weren’t far behind, receiving $6.18 million and $5.58 million, respectively. The leading Republican recipient in the category, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, had received $2.38 million, followed by former Massa­chusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with $1.73 million and Arizona Sen. John McCain with $1.66 million. Fred Thompson, a former senator and actor who was a late entry, had not reported contributions.

Zager says his political activity is nothing unusual or occupationally risky. “I don’t view it as something that would benefit or harm my practice. And if I had a client who disagreed with Obama, I’d say, ‘Good for you. Go out and support whoever you believe in, but don’t sit home.’ ”

Traditionally, law firms haven’t sat at home during political campaigns—nor for that matter have lawyers. Twenty-five of the nation’s 43 presidents have had law degrees, as do 10 of the 2008 presidential contenders: Democrats Edwards, Clinton, Obama, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, and Republicans Giuliani, Romney (though he never practiced law), Thompson, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.

WHO’S GIVING?

So which lawyers are giving to whom, how and why? The answers to the first three parts of that question are relatively easy. It’s the fourth part—why lawyers are giving so much—that generates many theories but no consensus.

This campaign cycle, the list of the top 25 law firm contributors strongly resembles the list of the largest firms in the U.S. The ABA Journal contacted each of the 25 firms on the list; 21 didn’t return calls or declined to comment.

Of the top four law firms in the list—including corporate giants DLA Piper; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; and Sidley Austin—only Kirkland & Ellis has given less than 90 percent to Democrats. Its attorneys have given 71 percent to Democrats.

Greenberg Traurig and Blank Rome, which both have strong reputations in political lobbying, each gave more to Republicans, but by much slimmer margins. Blank Rome’s attorneys made 56 percent of their contributions to Republicans, while Greenberg Traurig’s attorneys gave 54 percent.

Who’s getting the most money from these firms? Though Edwards leads the overall race, according to the CRP, his campaign has received only $214,450 from the top 25. Clinton and Obama are the biggest winners—Clinton with $1,638,702, and Obama with $1,525,433. McCain is the biggest Repub­lican draw here, receiving $499,062. He’s followed by Giuliani with $358,776 and Romney with $271,925. (Click here to see law firm contributions by candidate.)

Lawyers and law firms give to presidential candidates in several ways. The overwhelming majority donate through individual contributions.

“There’s a fair amount from [political action committees], but the bulk of the money coming from the legal industry is coming from people at law firms,” says Douglas Weber, a senior researcher at the CRP. “Com­pared to other industries, such as oil and gas, lawyers have a higher percentage of individual donors as opposed to PAC contributions.”

Some attorneys send contributions directly to campaigns, while others give to another person at their firm who “bundles” many contributions and presents them to a candidate. Though the term bundler often elicits negative reactions, the practice is legal as long as contributions are truly from donors, not written in the name of donors and reimbursed by the person gathering the contributions. (Southfield, Mich., attorney Geoffrey Fieger has been indicted on federal charges including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, making illegal campaign contributions and causing false statements for allegedly reimbursing people from whom he collected $127,000 for Edwards’ 2004 campaign.)

“Let’s not make bundling sound like a nefarious thing,” says Stuart Pape, Washington, D.C.-based managing partner at Patton Boggs, whose lawyers’ contributions have placed it 16th on the top 25 list. “I wouldn’t describe any of my colleagues as bundlers, but at any time, a number of us have engaged in bundling.

“Let’s say I’m going to an event for Congressman X. I send an e-mail to my partners saying, ‘I’d love to have you go or contribute.’ Often at the last minute a partner will have a client matter come up and will say, ‘I can’t go, but here’s a check.’ I’m bringing a check on behalf of that partner. In that case, I’m a bundler. But it’s a perfectly understandable way to deal with a circumstance that arises.”

Though she was at one time listed on government watchdog Public Citizen’s Web site as a bundler, Jamie Gorelick, a partner with Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in Washington, D.C., and former deputy attorney general under Bill Clinton, says she’s not one.

“A bundler is someone who collects checks and bundles them together and gives them to candidates,” she says. “I’ve called friends, and I’ve invited people to events, which is very different.” (The ABA Journal contacted numerous attorneys who have been identified as bundlers for Republican candidates but could not arrange interviews.)

Steve Ross

Steve Ross

HITTING UP THE FIRM

But in-firm solicitations are not uncommon, and firms handle such solicitations differently. At Akin Gump, attorneys who want to sponsor an event or solicit funds from others must run solicitations through an attorney who specializes in election law, says Steve Ross, chair of the firm’s public law and policy practice in Washington, D.C.

“We want to make sure participation is voluntary and not criteria for success or advancement in the firm,” he says. Since Akin Gump has influential partners from both major political parties—including Vernon Jordan Jr., a longtime adviser to Democratic presidents, and Tommy Thompson, a former Bush Cabinet official and Republican hopeful for 2008 who dropped out of the race—Ross doesn’t believe any employee would feel pressured to support any particular candidate.

At Alston & Bird, where attorneys’ contributions placed it 24th on the top 25 list, partners can solicit from any attorneys at the firm, with an exception to ensure that associates don’t feel pressured to give. “We have a general rule against any face-to-face solicitation,” says Ben F. Johnson III, the Atlanta-based managing partner. “Partners are allowed to ask associates in a general e-mail, but not face to face.”

Blank Rome, on the other hand, doesn’t solicit con­tributions from associates for its PAC, and it discourages partners from doing so independent of the PAC. “We won’t accept checks from associates to our PAC,” says Peter Peyser, a principal at its government affairs subsidiary, Blank Rome Government Relations. “When there are individual events, we don’t exclude associates. And certain partners will let associates know if they think or know they’ll be interested, but there’s no expectation on the part of the firm that associates are going to be doing that kind of thing.”

One attorney, who spoke on the condition that he remain anonymous, recalls when associates at his large Midwestern firm were heavily encouraged to contribute, specifically to Democratic candidates. He says that no longer happens because partners who were aggressive advocates of Democratic candidates have left the firm.

“One partner used to go door to door asking for money for Democratic candidates, and a lot of people were very uncomfortable,” says the attorney. “One associate told the partner, ‘I’m not giving one dime to the Dem­ocratic Party. Get out of my office.’ But I’m not aware of anybody who stood up to it who had anything bad happen to them.”

He says firmwide e-mails still circulate from both partners and associates announcing political events. “The firm’s policy is that informative e-mails with regard to fundraising aren’t prohibited,” he says. “We always make it clear when somebody’s doing it that the e-mail is not being sent on behalf of the firm, and you’ll never see follow-up e-mails.

“Back in the day, there’d be the first e-mail and then there’d be another reminder. I could see when people thought partners were really pushing things on them. I don’t see that anymore.”

As Peyser noted, besides in-firm solicitations, lawyers also give through PACs created by their firms or by public interest groups, such as the American Association for Justice, formerly the American Trial Lawyers Association.

For example, according to the CRP, lawyers at DLA Piper are the most generous political contributors in the category. They’ve given $463,410—$429,410 of it through individual contributions and $34,000 through the firm’s PAC. However, PAC figures also include contributions to 2008 congressional candidates.

Recipients of DLA Piper’s PAC include Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Giuliani, McCain and Romney, says Weber. Lawyers for Nixon Peabody, ranked 15th in con­tributions to 2008 presidential candidates, gave through individual contributions totaling $156,942 and through the firm’s PAC in the amount of $24,300. Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Giuliani, Romney and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson were recipients, according to Weber. Neither firm responded to requests to explain how its PAC determined which candidates received contributions.

Blank Rome’s PAC has a five-member bipartisan board that fields requests for contributions from the firm’s partners. But the PAC’s policy is to make no contributions to individual presidential campaigns. “We use our PAC as a congressional campaign vehicle and to give to party organizations, Republican and Democratic, and senatorial and House committees,” Peyser says.

The same is true at Patton Boggs. “We created a PAC to give ourselves the ability to do fundraising and to make contributions for Senate and House campaigns,” says Pape. When Patton Boggs lawyers want to request contributions for a campaign, they fill out an online form.

“We created some guidelines some years back to try and make some sense out of the contributions,” he says. “We can’t and shouldn’t give to every situation that they might request.” For instance, the firm is more likely to give when it’s co-sponsoring an event, and it gives preference to incumbents, though it often contributes to challengers at the same time.

Alston & Bird’s PAC contributes primarily to congressional campaigns. “The PAC is made up of two representatives from each of our offices, one Republican and one Democrat,” says managing partner Johnson. “It’s responsive to requests that come from clients or relate to activities on behalf of clients. If there were contributions made to a presidential candidate, I’d bet that—100 percent—they’d be sitting members of Congress. Those may be people we’re closely working with and want to be supportive.”

Akin Gump’s PAC sometimes contributes to presidential candidates, but not during primaries. “Decisions are made by a group of partners and nonpartners who meet on a regular basis to go through the myriad of opportunities we’re presented with,” says Ross. “But PAC money is a limited resource, and the demand is virtually insatiable. Getting involved in presidential primaries would put a lot of additional demand on the PAC.”

Stuart Pape

Stuart Pape

WHY THE RUSH?

When your occupation is the law, there’s no question as to why you might want to influence those who make the law. But why lawyers are giving so much more now than in the past, and why they’re giving so overwhelmingly to Democratic candidates, is harder to answer.

In part, lawyer donations reflect broader trends, says Weber of the CRP. “Candidates are raising a lot more money early on than was previously true,” he says. “There’s been a general ramping up, and lawyers are just part of that. ... [And] lawyers tend to give heavily to Democrats,” Weber adds. “Democratic candidates in this cycle have been raising extraordinary amounts of money, and that could be skewing the numbers.”

Another factor may be tort reform, a hot topic for many litigators and an issue that Edwards, a former personal-injury attorney, has most vocally opposed. “There are a lot of trial lawyers out there,” says Linda Lipsen, who is vice president for public affairs at the American Association for Justice. “Edwards used to be a member of our association, so there’s a lot of support for him, along with Clinton, Obama and Biden.”

The perception that Democrats may be favorites to win the White House in 2008 may also be driving contributions, says Bill Hogan, director of investigative projects at the nonpartisan, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, which funds journalistic efforts to foster government transparency. “Money often follows power,” says Hogan. “You may have here the perception that Democrats are in better shape to be in control on this, and the money may flow in that direction.”

Hogan also says that since so many candidates are lawyers—including big fundraisers Clinton, Edwards, Giuliani and Obama—they may have more connections at law firms than at other businesses.

Despite the big contributions, Lipsen doesn’t think lawyers’ level of involvement in the 2008 presidential campaign is extraordinary. “They’re typically very interested in politics as a group,” she says, “and there’s been lawyer giving since the beginning of time.”

Or, as Zager puts it, “It’s my obligation to be involved as a citizen.” He says he’s not working on his candidate’s behalf for personal gain. “I have no expectation of special treatment, nor do I want any.”

He jokingly adds, “Maybe if my father wanted to see the White House, I might call.”

G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and freelance journalist in Chicago.

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