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Law Firms Help Embassies Through Tangle of Legal Matters
The Washington Diplomat / February 2003

By Larry Luxner

Foley Hoag helps the Liberian government defend itself against lawsuits. Patton Boggs is instrumental, year after year, in getting Most Favored Nation status for China.

And Piper Rudnick advises the Embassy of Afghanistan on U.S. foreign-policy issues crucial to that country's interests without charging the Afghans a dime.

These three law firms are among the biggest and most influential in Washington, home to nearly 180 embassies and an estimated 17,500 lobbyists who try to sway the White House, Congress and an alphabet-soup of federal agencies on behalf of their various clients.

But lawyers do more than just lobby.

Traci Duvall Humes, an attorney with Foley Hoag LLP, says that in addition to traditional lobbying, her firm helps embassies with purely legal issues, such as lawsuits against governments, seizure of assets and commercial litigation.

"Many times our laws and procedures are different from the laws in their home countries," explained Humes. "So that they may or may not react in a way that's appropriate. For example, if you have 30 or 60 days to respond [to a lawsuit] here, they may have six months to respond back home."

Foley Hoag's current clients include the governments of Guatemala, Guyana, Kenya, Liberia, Malaysia and Uganda. Foreign government representation accounts for 40% of the business at its Washington office, which has 16 lawyers. In addition, the firm has over 250 attorneys at its Boston headquarters, and is about to open a branch in China.

It's hard to get law firms to comment on specific cases or clients, let alone fees. One of the largest, Akin Gump, won't even name the countries it represents either in interviews or on its official website.

"A lot of governments don't like being identified as the one which had a problem," says Humes.

But one client she doesn't mind discussing is the West African nation of Liberia.

"Following their civil war, the Liberian government hired us to defend it against lawsuits by companies seeking to enforce contracts," she said, listing a Middle Eastern construction company and a U.S. telecom firm among Liberia's biggest creditors. "But because the country was in turmoil, it was very easy for the government to miss deadlines. Certain obligations probably weren't met, but from the Liberian standpoint, they shouldn't have been met because of fraud in the contracts."

Humes adds: "One of the things we do is make sure governments don't get default judgments against them. If they're swift enough and they hire counsel, they can usually get these judgments set aside."

Mark Cowan is a partner with Patton Boggs LLP, whose revenues came to nearly $160 million last year.

"We have one of the largest foreign representation practices in Washington," said Cowan, who spent seven years with the CIA before joining Patton Boggs three years ago. "I'm often the one talking to these countries."

According to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Patton Boggs represents the governments of Angola, Costa Rica, Mexico, Qatar and Saudi Arabia; it also works for half a dozen other countries which the firm declined to identify.

"We have people here who spent a lot of time overseas, including some who have spent extensive amounts of time in the Middle East," said Cowan, who oversees business development for the firm. "We understand that there are differences and nuances in each culture, and it's important to learn them."

Among other things, Patton Boggs has secured orders freezing billions of dollars of assets in multiple foreign jurisdictions for the government of Qatar, managed to slash by 50% a U.S. Department of Transportation fine against a major Asian airline, and won more than $500 million in judgments against Iraqi government-owned banks and agencies for 20 international banks.

"We have both the depth and breadth of international experience," said Cowan. "I'm not talking just about subject matter, but also depth in terms of our bipartisanship. We have both Democrats and Republicans in the firm, so that gives us the ability to address matters universally in Washington."

Hired guns working for Patton Boggs include Tim Chorba, former U.S. ambassador to Singapore, and Rodney Slater, a former U.S. secretary of transportation.

"Transportation issues are often very important to foreign embassies, and [Slater] can give them pretty good counsel on landing rights, safety issues, flyovers and any kind of reciprocal agreements between the U.S. and other countries," said Cowan, noting that on any given day, 40 of the firm's lawyers may be working on international issues.

"These vary from general representation in some cases to trade matters in others anything from dumping and duties to free-trade agreements," he said. "We also help negotiate transactions as simple as renting space for an embassy, and doing mundane, day-to-day tasks like helping embassy people who get in trouble with the law, because even though they may have diplomatic immunity, they can still get deported."

So how much does all this cost embassies?

Generally speaking, Washington law firms charge between $20,000 to $50,000 a month for a lobbying contract, while legal fees are traditionally billed on an hourly basis. Top-tier law firms typically charge between $300 and $600 an hour for such services, though all these prices are of course negotiable.

"Rates vary, though we're competitive with other Washington firms that do this, and we've had a great degree of success in our work," said Humes of Foley Hoag.

Another law firm that enjoys success and influence is Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.

"Today, business opportunities have an international overlay," says a blurb on the Akin Gump website. "Action in one country won't suffice; you need to work in countries on all sides of a transaction at the same time. Akin Gump lawyers have the cultural understanding, language capabilities and business experience needed to penetrate new markets."

Founded in 1945, Akin Gump is the nation's 10th-largest law firm, with over 1,000 attorneys worldwide.

The company says its clients are active throughout the world, "improving mineral extraction methods in the CIS and China, developing port facilities in Central America, building a global satellite network and investing in virtually every emerging market."

In October, Akin Gump announced that James F. Collins, a senior advisor at the firm and the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, had been named to the U.S.-Russia Business Council's board of directors. The 260-member council is chaired by Robert S. Strauss, also a former ambassador to Moscow and a senior partner of the firm.

Yet another heavy hitter in Washington is Piper Rudnick LLP, which merged with Verner Liipfert in October. The combined company has 900 lawyers and represents the governments of Afghanistan, Cote d'Ivoire, Cyprus, Ethiopia, India, Malawi, Slovenia and Taiwan.

Partner Larry Levinson said the firm's foreign clients also include the Mexican Senate as well as Montenegro, the only former Yugoslav republic to remain politically linked to Serbia.

Tom Luria, a consultant with Piper Rudnick, was recently hired to oversee media relations for the Embassy of Cyprus.

"Cyprus has worked very closely with Piper Rudnick as it enters the European Union," he said. "Cyprus has been very diligent in communicating to Washington, often through the firm, and in working with the media."

Luria said he was offered the job because of his experience as a consultant for the Embassy of Afghanistan experience that's equally useful in his current position.

"It's nice to have an American who is media-savvy," said Luria, noting that part of his job includes writing op-ed pieces for Cypriot Ambassador Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis and presenting them to newspapers for consideration. He's also helped the embassy produce slick media kits and update its graphics.

Three years ago, John Merrigan of the firm's Latin America practice group told The Washington Diplomat in an interview that its overall foreign practice generates "in excess of $5 million a year in annual revenues, with Latin American countries accounting for a third of that."

Piper Rudnick wouldn't provide current figures, though it's clear that Latin America is no longer that important to overall revenues. When asked what law firms like his charge embassies to represent them, Levinson said "it's a matter of ethics, and I can't get into that."

But one client Piper Rudnick wants to talk about is the Embassy of Afghanistan, which it has represented on a pro bono basis ever since the embassy opened last year.

"We think this is a matter of extraordinary public interest," said Levinson, who oversees the Afghan Embassy account with partner Brenda Meister. "They're just now emerging from 25 years of civil strife, and it's consistent with U.S. policy goals to do this."

Levinson's first major assignment was to help push through the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002, which authorizes $3.3 billion to rebuild the war-torn country.

"Our job was to work with the ambassador in helping to shape elements of the legislation, the most significant of which was a new provision inserted by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) called the Enterprise Fund, which will authorize public and partnerships to engage in the reconstruction of Afghanistan," said Levinson. "It was modeled after the SEED Act enacted in 1989 to assist Poland and Hungary in their redevelopment."

The lawyer said his firm donates 10 or12 hours a week to this account; that time is spent in meetings with Ambassador Ishaq Shahryar, Capitol Hill staffers and others.

In addition to pro bono work, another area of interest to lawyers is "corporate social responsiblity," known in legal limbo as CSR.

"We're one of the few law firms in Washington doing this right now," said Humes, noting that Foley Hoag is trying to distinguish itself in this area.

"We advise poor countries on ways to improve their negotiating position vis-a-vis Western companies," she said. "Countries don't want companies to know that they're trying to improve their hand because it may run them off. For example, if a drug company wants to cut down trees to make a vaccine, then we'd help them create a policy that would force the company to do it in a responsible way, by cutting only the trees they need and by not driving out the people who live there."

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