As the political parties battle for control of Congress and, likely, the nation's agenda for the next two years, Philadelphia lawyers are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help defeat and elect candidates across the nation.
Of the big Center City firms, Blank Rome L.L.P. and its lawyers have by far spent the most - $598,729 in the current federal election cycle, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks campaign spending. The Blank Rome contributions went to such politicians as Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.); Rob Portman, the Republican Senate candidate in Ohio; and Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Democratic Senate candidate in Florida.
Against the backdrop of total spending in federal races over the last two years, contributions by Philadelphia law firms would appear to be relatively modest - about $1.7 million for the larger firms.
The Center for Responsive Politics estimates total spending in House and Senate races in the 2010 cycle will top $4 billion, a record for a midterm election.
But most of Philadelphia's larger firms have large lobbying offices in Washington, as well as in state capitals.
Strategically placed contributions can help assure that political allies will win election - and pick up the phone when an urgent policy matter arises.
"We have a long-term view of relationships in Washington," said Carl Buchholz, managing partner and chief executive officer of Blank Rome, and long active in senior Republican circles. "It is our practice to develop those relationships long before assistance is needed."
Law-firm contributions fall into two distinct categories. Most firms have political action committees, funded by contributions from lawyers within the firm. Managers of the firms decide how the money will be spent, often with input from clients.
Individual lawyers also make contributions on their own - directly to candidates - and raise money from others as well.
"I give money exclusively to Republicans, and I have partners who give exclusively to Democrats," Alfred W. Putnam Jr., chairman of the 650-lawyer Drinker, Biddle & Reath L.L.P., said of individual lawyer contributions. "All my partners couldn't stop me from giving my money to [Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidate Pat] Toomey even if they wanted to."
Though Drinker Biddle qualifies as a large firm by most measures, its political action committee and individual lawyers gave relatively little compared with other firms.
For the entire 2010 federal election cycle, Drinker Biddle lawyers gave a total of $98,842.
Putnam said that the firm has no control or influence over individual contributions by its lawyers, but that spending by its political action committee typically is intended to support the policy agendas of its commercial clients.
What is striking about the campaign-spending records of big firms in Philadelphia is not so much the amount of money that firms and their members are willing to spend during tough economic times, but rather the geographic diversity.
Although the amounts may not be huge, the firms and their lawyers are helping to fund races all over the country.
Thus, Democrat Patty Murray of Washington state, in a tight race to defend her Senate seat, received a $2,000 contribution on March 9 from a Drinker Biddle lawyer based in Washington, D.C.
Similarly, lawyers in Duane Morris L.L.P.'s lobbying branch helped fund candidates and party organizations as diverse as Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.) and the state Republican Party of Georgia. The firm typically contributes more to state and local candidates than it does to candidates in federal elections, said firm chairman John Soroko.
"Sometimes clients will suggest that certain candidates are important to them," Soroko said. "That is a factor, but not the dominant factor."
One difference between law-firm giving and political spending by individual industries is that law firms, given their roles as legal interpreters and advocates, do not typically have as direct a stake in policy outcomes as clients.
And sometimes, the interests of law firms can contradict those of clients. That appears to have been the case with the financial-services legislation passed this year in response to the 2008 Wall Street crisis.
Aimed at preventing a recurrence, the law will potentially create hundreds of rules and regulations for banks, brokerage firms, and others.
Many lawyers are now working long hours for their financial-services clients, trying to advise them on ways not to run afoul of the law, running up bills that their clients no doubt would rather not have to pay.
"The irony is that at a time when fund-raising is more challenging than ever, people are more engaged than ever," Buchholz, of Blank Rome, said. "They either want change or they want to prevent change."