Hiring a Missouri Lawyer Lobbyist:

By Travis H. Brown, MBA

Many government relations professionals inevitably must face this kind of scenario within their issue management responsibilities.  The general counsel of your Fortune 500 Corporation, or perhaps even a major law partner of a retained firm by your employer, approaches you at a meeting or evening event to let you know that he has some great contacts that could help you solve your contract lobbying challenges.  Before you know it, several other calls have been made from other peers to you or even your supervisors encouraging you to make this worthy decision.

Now, it is up to you to independently-evaluate the claims and credibility of the referrals given by the legal universe, which may or may not truly specialize in working your state’s General Assembly.  You don’t have much time.  Your issue is calling out for help.  You need to maintain respect and rapport with internal company executives.  How can sort you out what is needed versus what is desired?

As someone who has managed contract lobby firms across 14 states for major corporate interests, I can relate to your director’s dilemma.  If you go along to get along with what seems to be a great resume, but the firm’s results prove lackluster, the burden of future results now fall on you.  However, if you choose to customize your own search, and someone other than the law firm’s pick is hired, now your reputation breaking rank from what others in your company recommended is now at stake.  The bottom line therefore becomes:  how can we hire the best lawyer-lobbyist if that person is among those in the mix?

As a Missouri contract lobbyist for nearly a decade, you can really observe notable differences for how law firms dedicate their lobbying time compared to other business models like ours.  As someone who also hires other lobbyists, including lawyer-lobbyists from time to time, there are unique pros and cons to having an esquire at your beckon call.  Here’s a list of questions worth raising to navigate through your choices that could make your director or manager’s job a little easier.

  1. Beware the Billable Hour(s):  In certain, low maintenance, or early situations, hiring a lawyer-lobbyist on call by the hour may make some sense if your issue is highly-technical, limited to a brief transaction, or likely to deviate completely shortly into the future.  However, for most dedicated government affairs shops, this is the exception rather than the rule.  More often than not, as your contacts grow and your conflict matures, you often consume more variable time with your legislation than anyone might have predicted.  The larger long-run issue might be that you’ve now created workload where there are many incentives to delay ultimate solutions.  Some firms who like billable hours seek multiple client interests within the same environment, hearing, or venue even when their services from one client to another cannot be differentiated.  Firms with strong experience in their capacity typically aren’t afraid to assign a fixed retainer price priced to what they believe to be their own premium service.  Even if the law firm favors the billable hour, you can always learn a lot about how they value you as their future client by asking for a flat fee retainer.   Over the long run, firms that over-value their retainers don’t stay competitive in their market.  A flat fee prevents such debate from happening among both parties while your focus should be on your company’s issue(s).
  2. Interview the “Of Counsel” Contacts for Specifics:  There’s no better place for a termed-out legislator, retiring finance director, or over-extended issue leader than the famed “of counsel” position within a major law firm.  No doubt if the LLP or LLC is pressing hard, you will meet one or more of these key influencers within their network.  So, when you do, here are some revealing questions about whether they might work for your project:  1) What percentage of your weekly time is normally-devoted to state & local government affairs duties?  If they contribute to matters important to you, they will want you to know about their specific functions (and locations).  2) If they claim to work in the hallways of your State Capitol, approximately how many days per year would they be present for longer than 10 hours each day this past session?  This answer is easy to verify among those who spend virtually every legislative day in those hallways.  3) If they drop names and political contacts, ask them if they can provide three references in the last six months on whose first-term campaign that they might have served, contributed, or assisted?  In Jefferson City, Missouri, your rolodex demands constant renewal with first-term Senators and Representatives if you expect to manage your issue in a term-limited world.
  3. Explore their Best Examples of “Off-the-Clock” Leadership:  The partners of law firms know how many billable hours exist for virtually all of their reports.  That also means that firms performing legislative or political work also must sort and rank the non-billable community, pro-bono, or volunteer campaign work.  There are many functions, such as waiting out three hour hearings, waiting for House floor action at night, or attending weekend fundraisers, that should be really hard to justify in a law firm context.  Try to understand if your government affairs lead is a partner, or if not, to which division they report within the law firm’s universe.  It is not uncommon for lawyers to market to you other affiliations or related businesses that claim to have legislative, regulatory, or political relevance.  Find out now whether such contacts are in fact accessible to you under your flat fee retainer, or where such aides are “a la carte” premiums to leverage.  A network with strength in handling government affairs normally shows that depth and breadth across most of their office geography.  If an extraordinary individual operates on his/her own, ask them for several examples of how they maintain their base of influence when billable hours don’t apply.
  4. Understand Any Pending Caseloads that May Apply:  Hiring an attorney with tremendous legal & procedural knowledge can prove to be a real asset, especially if such scope of work relates strongly to the key facts of your agenda.  However, retaining a lawyer-lobbyist who also maintains other case work outside your arena can also prove to become a significant distraction.  Much of the state & local legislative session lobbying requires a daily ministry of physical presence, along with a sharp policy focus on the ground to remain successful.  I know of several lawyer-lobbyists that don’t take much or any case work from December to May during the peak periods of Missouri’s General Assembly for this reason.  If your contact does engage in litigation or other legal work, find out on what Revised Statutes he/she normally operates.  Regardless of who you hire, this can be excellent way to index a wide variety of professional experience.
  5. Find Out Who Reports & Attends on Their Behalf:  If a lawyer-lobbyist is well-established, he/she usually has some legal and/or legislative staff on which they depend.  At a minimum, you should know who these contacts are in case they become your host to a Capitol visit.  Such assistance is often useful when questions are raised from their weekly or monthly updates by email or newsletter as well.  However, comparing how such lobbyists dedicate their staff can provide you with many strategic clues about how their firm is governed.  Does their staff have any previous policy, political, or legislative experience?  Do they practice law, and if so, among what areas?  How familiar would such staff be to your industry, sector, or allied trade groups if your services required more attention?  Can the staff cite any examples of prospective clients that their firm declined due to “conflict of interest” concerns with existing clients?  If the company ethics and training programs are thorough, you should be able to reflect on what choices the firm has declined to become successful.

We wish you the best of luck with your government relations endeavors, no matter who you may choose.

“People are getting smarter nowadays; they are letting lawyers, instead of their conscience, be their guide.” – Will Rogers