Lobbying Leader Akin Gump Challenged by Fast-Growing Rival

  • Brownstein brings in 34% more revenue in first half of 2019
  • New hires, trade, and drug issues bolster K Street business

K Street king Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the top-earning lobbying shop since 2014, could soon be dethroned by a fast-growing competitor.

Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck saw revenues grow by 34% in the first half of 2019 when compared to the same period last year, according to new lobbying disclosure filings. That firm has been on a hiring spree, bringing on former Democratic aides, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) former chief of staff Nadeam Elshami, and poaching a group of tax lobbyists from McGuireWoods Consulting led by former Senate Finance Committee staff director Russ Sullivan.

“We don’t have big flashy names who are the glitterati, but we have people who are very smart, substantive and well-connected who have respect of their peers in industry,” said Marc Lampkin, the managing partner of Brownstein’s Washington office.

(Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)
K Street

Brownstein earned $19.2 million in lobbying fees over the first six months of this year, while Akin Gump took in $19.7 million.

Many other top firms reported faring better than they did last year. New clients and fresh personnel hires helped fuel those increases, as the largest firms continue to expand. The corporate world has also been bolstering lobbying teams to deal with trade issues, pharmaceutical and healthcare proposals and spending bills.

Lobbying firms had a midnight deadline to disclose how much they were paid to influence federal policy during the second quarter of 2019.

Of the 20 lobby shops that provided copies of their filings to Bloomberg Government, 13 had revenue increases in figures through the first half of the year.

Among smaller firms, Klein/Johnson Group, a bipartisan two-person shop formed in 2017, earned $1.1 million in the first six months of 2019, a 26% increase over the same period in 2018.

Top Earners

Akin Gump, which hired three former members of Congress this year, brought in $10.06 million in lobbying revenue from April through June of this year.

Former Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and former Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) have to abide by a “cooling off” period before they’re able to become lobbyists. Former House members must wait a year, while ex-senators must abstain for two. It also hired Clete Willems, a former senior trade adviser to President Donald Trump.

Topping $10 million in a single quarter is rare.

Brownstein just edged out Akin Gump with $10.07 million in lobbying fees. Akin Gump previously had topped $10 million during consideration of the 2017 tax law (Public Law 115-97) and during one quarter of 2015.

“I think it’s clear that both firms are hitting on all cylinders, which is also an indicator of the level of attention corporate America is paying to the activity on Capitol Hill,” said Hunter Bates, the co-leader of Akin Gump’s public policy practice. “We are fortunate to have clients whose coinued trust in us resulted in our strongest quarter in four years.”

GOP-dominant firm BGR Group and Squire Patton Boggs reported earning $14.1 million and $12.7 million, respectively, during the first half of this year. Squire Patton Boggs snagged former Reps. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Bill Shuster (R-Penn.) after they left Congress this year.

Looking Ahead

“The fall and heading into the winter is going to be frantic because they’re going to want to try to get as much done before the presidential campaigns begin in earnest,” said Darrell Conner, the co-head of the public policy practice at law and lobbying firm K&L Gates.

His firm took in about $9 million in the first six months of the year, a slight dip from last year. Services that aren’t included in the lobbying revenue — like sanctions compliance and regulatory work — have “more than compensated” for the decline, he said. It also nabbed a newly departed member of Congress, California Republican Jeff Denham.

Lobbying firms that experienced a dip in revenues during the first half of the year included Covington & Burling, Holland & Knight, Hogan Lovells, and GOP firms Fierce Government Affairs and CGCN. Law firms with lobby shops, such as Covington & Burling, say they aren’t phased by fluctuations in revenue, as their non-lobbying Washington work is still robust.

Others such as Invariant, a bipartisan firm formed by Democratic donor Heather Podesta, grew exponentially — taking in $7.3 million from January through June, an 18% boost from the same period in 2018. Public affairs firm Forbes-Tate saw revenue increase by 13% over the first six months, earning $7.1 million.

Autum Issues

After the August recess, lawmakers will be working on implementing a spending and debt ceiling deal, a defense authorization bill and the approval of the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA).

“If Speaker Pelosi chooses to bring up USMCA in the House this fall, we will see activity on trade go off the charts,” said Bates, of Akin Gump. Clete Willems, a former senior trade adviser to President Donald Trump, recently joined the firm.

Lobbyists also will be watching for action on tax extenders, drug pricing bills and moves Congress makes in dealing with consumer privacy as lawmakers increase scrutiny of tech companies.

“We hope it stays steady, but we’re running out of time,” said Moses Mercado, a principal at Ogilvy Government Affairs, whose new clients include the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

Ogilvy earned $5.5 million in the first six months of 2019, a 12% boost in revenues over the same time last year.

“As we start weaning the field [of Democratic presidential hopefuls], issues the candidates start talking about become reality — that’s the sort of variable we don’t know yet,” he added. “Some of the issues they’re driving will drive, to certain extent, what happens on Capitol Hill.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan R. Wilson in Washington at mwilson@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com