Elite Lobbying Firms Posted Big Gains in 2009

Posted January 20, 2010 at 6:55pm

K Street’s top 25 firms cashed in on the aggressive legislative agenda unleashed by the new president and bigger Democratic majorities in Congress in 2009 to post double-digit growth of about 10 percent over the previous year.

Despite economic uncertainty and the promise by the Obama administration to clamp down on the influence industry, the majority of top lobbying firms posted higher numbers in 2009, with 11 firms showing dramatic growth.

Just a day after Republicans scored a major political victory, claiming the Senate seat left open by Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy’s death, K Streeters predicted another strong year in 2010.

“It changes the dynamic in the Senate, and it may have a secondary impact in the House,— said Tony Podesta, founder of the Podesta Group, which saw a 60 percent revenue jump. “The world is not turned upside down.—

While most old-line firms posted limited to flat growth, several midsized lobby shops, as well as a handful of relatively younger lobby shops, posted dramatic increases in revenue.

The Podesta Group, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Holland & Knight and Alston & Bird all reported more than 40 percent increases in billings. K&L Gates, Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti and McBee Strategic Consulting posted gains of more than 20 percent in 2009.

With several big-ticket legislative items moving through Congress, in particular financial services regulatory reform, lobbyists said they expect more of the same this year.

“I’m not sure that the normal ‘this is an election year so we aren’t going to be able to get a lot done’ holds,— said Alex Vogel of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti.

The top three lobbying firms — Patton Boggs, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Van Scoyoc Associates Inc. — maintained their spots despite a mixed performance.

Patton Boggs retained its place atop the list, pulling in $40.7 million, nearly doubling the spread to $8.4 million between it and its nearest rival, Akin Gump.

After several years of increasing revenues, Akin Gump had a slight revenue drop of about 6 percent. The firm reported lobbying revenue of $32.3 million.

Akin Gump’s Smith Davis attributed the decline to a drop-off in mergers and acquisition work. The firm has done a significant amount of political advising on helping clients manage deals, he said. Additionally, Davis said the firm’s investigation team has increased its work, which doesn’t appear on the lobbying disclosure reports.

“There was a tremendous boom in Congressional investigations work,— Davis said.

The biggest change comes with the Podesta Group and Brownstein Hyatt catapulting up the list to No. 4 and No. 5, respectively. Both firms posted a whopping 60 percent in revenue growth. Podesta’s take increased nearly $10 million in 2009 to $25.6 million. Brownstein Hyatt brought in $23.5 million, up nearly $9 million from the previous year.

“It was a busy year,— Podesta said, noting legislative activity on climate change, health care and financial services regulatory reform.

“There’s just an enormous amount of opportunity and new people coming to town saying, ‘I wasn’t paying much attention and now they are all of a sudden going to change everything in my industry,’— he added.

Podesta’s stratospheric rise comes after sitting near the bottom of the list in 2007. The firm is continuing its rise, picking up clients this month, according to Podesta.

Brownstein Hyatt’s Al Mottur said his firm was well-positioned to take advantage of the incoming wave of Democrats in Congress and at the executive branch.

But with Republicans predicted to make potentially sweeping gains in the 2010 midterm election, Mottur hyped up his firm’s bipartisan model.

Not all firms saw an uptick in business, though.

K Street stalwart Cassidy & Associates, once the top firm, had a precipitous fall from the top five for the first time, sliding to No. 8.

The formerly all-Republican firm BGR Group also struggled in 2009, posting the only double-digit drop. The firm slipped seven slots to No. 14 with $15.5 million in lobbying revenue. That comes after a firm-high of $22.7 million in 2007. BGR Group’s Loren Monroe called 2009 a “transition— year.

“We grew from an all-Republican lobbying firm to a full-service bipartisan firm, which includes public relations, investment advisory and a London office,— Monroe said.

Additionally, like many firms with clients facing tough economic times, Monroe said there were instances in which clients asked for retainer reductions or didn’t renew.

Still, Monroe said he feels well-positioned in 2010: “With the expansion of our services, we’ve already seen a strong uptick.—

Quinn Gillespie & Associates also experienced a slight downturn, reporting a 3.7 percent dip. Firm co-founder Jack Quinn said the decline was in large part due to a one-time $1 million contingency fee in lobbying fees for 2008. Additionally, Quinn, who declined to give specifics, said the firm is embarking on an expansion into strategic communications and new media.

Most noticeably absent from the top 25 is the PMA Group. Long a contender among top lobbying firms, the PMA Group ceased operations on March 31 after becoming embroiled in a federal probe. It reported only one filing in 2009, billing $10,000.

The Livingston Group, Covington & Burling, DLA Piper and Blank Rome Government Relations all dropped off the list.

The departures made room for several new additions to the chart, including McBee Strategic, Mehlman Vogel and the Breaux Lott Leadership Group.

Breaux Lott, which started in January 2008, grew more than 25 percent, with a likely $10.8 million in revenue. McBee Strategic, which was started in 2002, and Mehlman Vogel, which opened its doors in 2004, both had more than 20 percent growth last year.

Alex Vogel said the economy, the federal bailout for banks, health care and regulatory reform all helped fuel business at his shop. “Any one of these things in a normal year would have been huge,— Vogel said. “Put them all together and that helped create momentum.—