Frank "Rusty" Conner III is no stranger to managerial responsibility. Before joining DLA Piper in October 2007, Conner was partner-in-charge of Alston & Bird's Washington office and chairman of the firm's executive committee. So it comes as little surprise that Conner would serve as managing partner of DLA's D.C. office. (He served a couple of years as co-managing partner alongside Ann Ford.)
Conner balances his responsibility overseeing the office of about 150 attorneys with his own corporate practice. In addition, Conner serves as counsel to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and as a board member of the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority. One of the authority's main responsibilities is financing the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project with the goal of bringing the Silver Line to Dulles Airport.
What are the practices that make up the Washington office?
Conner: We have probably four principle areas: litigation, government affairs, corporate and real estate. Within each of those, there are subdivisions of particular focuses. In litigation, for example, there is an enforcement group. They are mixed in with our white collar group and to some degree with antitrust. Then you look at government affairs, for example. That is catchall for our policy practice, which deals with the [Obama] administration and [Capitol] Hill but also our regulatory groups which are focused in particular sectors: financial services, healthcare, energy, education, government contracts, environmental and international trade. Within each of those you have subdivisions. Our corporate group and real estate group are a little bit more homogeneous.
What is the relationship between the Northern Virginia, Baltimore and Washington offices?
The Baltimore office was the legacy office of Piper & Marbury. Northern Virginia (Reston) was opened back in the technology boom. We are, as a firm with many offices, principally managed on a practice group basis, globally and nationally. There is a great deal of coordination among all of our offices. We have nearly 30 offices in the United States alone. There is a great deal of coordination on a practice group basis, whether it's IP or corporate or litigation. We have closer relationships with Baltimore and northern Virginia than we do with offices that are farther away, because folks go back and forth all the time. We do lots of things together. For example, in the corporate section, we have a mid-Atlantic corporate meeting coming up.
What role does Washington play in the overall legal market?
Ever since the financial crisis, Washington has become more of an equal with the New York financial markets as it relates to economic activity. We have an administration that is clearly prone to involvement in the private sector from a regulatory perspective. I think you will see a continued increase. It has already increased over the last four or five years to a heightened level. One of the reasons I think D.C. law firm offices have done as well as they have over the last five years is that fact.
What effect if any is the ongoing budget fight having for clients?
I don't think there is any question that business activity has been constrained as a result of not only the sequester but the larger issue of fiscal and tax policy of the federal government…The sequester is obviously having a lot of impact on the northern Virginia technology and government contract practice. As the government reduces or curtails its spending, it's going to have a major impact in northern Virginia, Maryland and the District. We expect to see a great deal of layoffs and reduction in economic activity in this particular market. What business needs is certainty as to what the rules are going to be. They will make their investment decisions and align their business models accordingly. The worst of all worlds is when they don't have that certainty because they don't know what to do. They become less active and put off making decisions.
What are your thoughts on the overall state of the legal market?
The legal profession is going thorough transformation and those firms that embrace change and are entrepreneurial and are willing to make tough decisions will fare very well.
How do you spend your time outside of the practice of law?
One way is serving as counsel to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Last year it was one of the [non-governmental organizations] whose offices were raided in Cairo. Our people were threatened with arrest and criminal charges. We spent a lot of time with the State Department and Justice working on that. I am also a board member of the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, which has had its challenges and certainly has been in the paper quite a bit, and is responsible for helping to put the Silver Line out to Dulles. That has been a fascinating ride.
What are some of the challenges of this Silver Line project?
No one could get that project moving. The state turned to the airports authority because it had credibility. It was not properly funded from the beginning. There was a de minimis amount of support for the whole project. There was support for phase one but not for phase two. I think those who were pushing it said, "this is an opportunity to get rail to Dulles, it keeps in the public sector and we'll figure it our as we go along." That's what we're doing. Unfortunately, we are taking the heat in a lot of respects. That's not to say some of it isn't deserved for issues that were related to less financial planning. I think when all is said and done on the financing in about four months, that we will have $300 million from Virginia. It looks like we will also have a very significant [Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act] loan from the federal government. That is a project we have coming together and it ultimately is a great project for the region. Clearly people can criticize it for what it's done to toll rates and the anticipated usage of Metro, but I think 10 years down the road, 20 years down the road, people are going to look back and say, "We needed this."
This is part of a series of Q&A sessions Legal Times is conducting with D.C.-based law firm managing partners. Photo by The National Law Journal's Diego M. Radzinschi.