It's been almost two years since Paul Thompson and Bobby Burchfield have shared the title of co-managing partner of McDermott Will & Emery's Washington office. In that time the firm has added partners to its ranks and made a high-profile move to Capitol Hill.
Thompson, who focuses his practice on white-collar criminal defense, congressional investigations and appellate work, recently celebrated his six-year anniversary with the firm. Burchfield, who has served as co-managing partner since he joined the firm in 2004, practices in corporate litigation. He is also a member of the firm's management committee.
Legal Times sat down with Burchfield and Thompson in the firm's office to discuss the firm's business, goals for the D.C. office and Washington politics.
Legal Times: Why have two office managing partners as opposed to one?
Thompson: One of the things we try to pride ourselves on here is that our leadership also works as a fulltime lawyer. To have a partner who helps manage the office I think is a great asset. This is also our second largest office. We have about 205 attorneys and couple hundred more staff. Administratively it is a tough job, so it is nice to have two people to do that work.
Burchfield: I would also say that of our practices, of all of our offices, Paul and I have as active practices of law as any of the other office heads. Some of the other office heads, I think, find it to be a fulltime job and it can be a fulltime job. I enjoy practicing law and I like the craft of being a lawyer. I went to law school to be a practicing lawyer and that is something I still like after 35 years.
What are the firm's goals for the Washington office?
Thompson: We definitely have as a goal to be a top 10 Washington, D.C. office, thought of as an office that people go to for Washington-specific problems. Part of the move was an effort to enhance not only our brand in this area but to emphasize our practice areas where we see a focus for growth. We have the top health practice in the country. We have the top tax practice in the country. We are trying to build our government strategies practice with Capitol Hill down the road. We have a unique alcohol practice where we do regulatory work for those in the alcohol industry. We have a unique food and beverage practice. We have practices that are so distinctively Washington and we have a grade-A brand in all of those.
Burchfield: We want to be a top 10 firm in Washington not just in terms of size and revenue; we want to be a top 10 firm in all the measures that matter. We want to be looked to as one of the top firms providing pro bono services and community services. We want to be looked to as one of the top firms in terms of the quality and difficulty in the work that clients expect and get from us. We want to be a top law firm in terms of quality of life, in terms of mentoring and career-building for lawyers and staff. We are trying to focus the office's objectives on the broad spectrum of what it means to be a great law firm. That is what we're about and trying to achieve here. I do think it's interesting that location matters. One of my colleagues referred to it as the power of place. What we are trying to do here in this office is build the right environment for our practices to grow and thrive. Those are the sorts of things we are most focused on as opposed to building individual practices.
What effect has Congress had on the business of law?
Thompson: It's a very common question and I always say that when Congress does anything or doesn't do something, it generally generates legal work in some way or another. When Congress wasn't doing anything, let's take taxes for instance, there were a whole host of questions that clients would ask about. What does this mean? When Congress does do something there are a whole host of questions about what is the effect on me. I think there will be some practice areas affected by the sequester. For instance, those folks who do government contract work. There are going to be government contractors who will no doubt be affected by that. There will be legal work that comes out of that to advise and assist those folks to understand the ramifications of the sequester. We find that as Congress has acted and as there was uncertainty about healthcare legislation, that our healthcare practice was busier than ever trying to interpret the law, advise on what the Supreme Court could do and after the Supreme Court decided, advising on the opinion. Congress and the administrative agencies, as well, are such a fundamental part of the regulatory and legal scheme that businesses have to confront today. It will continue, whether they are acting or not acting, to generate, in some way, the need for legal guidance.
Burchfield: Almost every lawyer that I know who is practicing has ended up in Washington because they have a public policy bend. It makes it a more interesting place to practice law. Whether you're doing something that directly relates to what Congress does today or not, people talk about in the hallways, they know about it on the Hill. They are interested in the issues, I think to a greater degree than lawyers in New York or Chicago or other cities. As Paul said, it has the inevitable effect of creating business for lawyers. We have tried to position ourselves as a firm and certainly as an office to take advantage of that through our health practice, our government relations practice, our tax practice. We are positioned here at 500 North Capital Street in the McDermott Building as a crossroads of discussion, a crossroads of meetings and a crossroads of fundraising events.
What practices do you expect will be busy in future?
Burchfield: I still think, being an inveterate optimist, that we may be moving to a once in a generation tax reform, which heaven knows what shape it will take. About once every generation, there is a major rewrite of the tax laws. I think many people, maybe most people, think it's time to do that. There is the Simpson-Bowles Commission on the Hill. The president has talked about the need to get rid of deductions and maybe flatten rates. There should be a point of compromise, maybe not this session of Congress, but sometime in the near future. I think our tax people are preparing for that. In terms of hot litigation issues, we see the government going after a number of the industries that we represent, particularly healthcare, in an effort to address what they refer to as fraud and abuse. Many of our clients might think is simply an effort to add money to federal [coffers] through litigation. The administration seems to be heating up in its antitrust review and enforcement. The [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau], many of our clients feel, is going to be a major force coming out of the city in the next couple of years.
Thompson: I would add one to that where we have seen a lot of activity, particularly coming out of this office recently, and that is IP litigation. We have these beautiful new conference rooms on this floor. If you had stumbled through here the last couple of months, you would have seen boxes in these rooms as we have teams of trial lawyers getting ready to go to the [International Trade Commission]. We continue to be extraordinarily busy in IP litigation. And I think we will continue to see a lot of activity in that space.
Burchfield: One other area: administrative litigation. As the president has found himself a little bit restricted in Congress, I think we are seeing the administrative state gearing up to do a lot of regulatory activity of things that can't make it through Congress. We're seeing administrative litigation. In fact, on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and National Federation of Independent Businesses, we filed an amicus brief two weeks ago supporting Supreme Court review of an important decision coming out of the D.C. Circuit.
What keeps you busy outside the practice of law?
Burchfield: Practicing law is something that I still very much love to do. It is a jealous profession, but I have over the years become involved in a number of philanthropic activities. I'm the vice chairman of the board of trustees at Wake Forest this year. I am on the dean's board of advisor at my old law school, George Washington [University Law School]. This year I am the chair of Lawyers Have Heart 10k on June 8. I'm also on the board of a Georgetown Pediatric Center. My wife and I are very active in that, both as board members and as fundraisers. I also serve as chairman of Crossroads GPS. I have a wife and 15-year-old-daughter, with whom, and two of her 15-year-old friends; I went to a Maroon 5 concert last week. My ears are still ringing.
Thompson: I am married and have four children – 13, 11, almost 9 and 6. I think someone once said, who you are is what you do when you have nothing else to do. I am a dad. Beyond that I do serve on the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.
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.