Law Firms and Elections and Politics and Government & Economic Development and Law

City law firm a key player in GOP wins

November 19, 2007

Three members of a small, young, downtown law firm played key rolls in Republican election wins this month, boosting the firm's profile as it tackles aggressive growth plans that include beefing up its lobbying business.

John Lewis and Wilkins LLP set up shop on Monument Circle in 2005 and since then has grown from the three attorneys to 11, including partner Thomas John and associates John Cochran and Maura Hoff--all of whom had plenty to celebrate on election night.

As chairman of the Marion County Republican Party, John directed the strategy that helped the GOP regain a 16-13 majority on the City-County Council.

Cochran ran Indianapolis mayor-elect Greg Ballard's campaign and is now leading his transition team's executive committee; John also is a member of the executive committee.

And Hoff was a local coordinator with Lawrence mayor-elect Paul Ricketts' campaign.

"Because of the results, it looks like we're the type of people who have a crystal ball, but they just worked hard," said John Lewis, the firm's managing partner.

The gregarious 40-year-old South Bend native started the firm in January 2005 to try to get back to a time "before hourly billing killed the relationship" between attorneys and clients.

At the time, he was working in Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter's office, heading litigation. Lewis said he wanted to start a general-practice firm and work with clients on everything from estate planning to business acquisitions.

"Bigger firms want people to think that, in big cities, you must be a specialist to practice," Lewis said. "We practice in many different areas and go toe to toe with the big guys."

Now the recent election wins give the firm momentum as it plans to beef up its governmental affairs work, which is led by John.

"Being successful at anything is good for the firm," John said, adding that he's considering delving into strategic consulting and communications services for campaigns.

The same skills are needed to be a good attorney or lobbyist or to run a winning campaign, he said. "In the end, you have to convince the voter, juror or regulator of the merits of your side."

Expanding also might mean getting some Democrats on the firm's roster of attorneys.

"We have talked to some, but it's a question of the right fit," John said. With a small firm, it's more informal and the people are closer, so a bad hire would have more of an impact. "If there are people you don't like, you can't hide out on a different floor."

When a firm is small, partners generally recruit attorneys they know and have worked with, said Bob Birge, president of the locally based Law Firm Marketing Network. That means practices often end up one-sided--either predominantly Democratic or predominantly Republican.

It's tough for smaller firms to attract talent from the other party because they're competing with the cachet and perks of big firms.

But "with their profile now, it's a much more attractive [employment] alternative to people," said Indiana Republican State Chairman Murray Clark, who's also an attorney with Baker and Daniels LLP.

Observers say a law firm's success always depends on having good attorneys. But John Lewis and Wilkins is poised to reap the rewards of good connections, too.

"Political influence within a law firm is very important," Birge said. "When the dice were rolled, [John Lewis and Wilkins LLP] came out looking great."

For government relations work, it's always helpful to know where to find friendly faces.

"Now, at least for the next four years, they're positioned pretty well to do any regulatory or governmental-type work," Clark said.

Unlike John Lewis and Wilkins, many other local law firms stayed on the sidelines in the Indianapolis mayoral race and now must scramble to get to know Ballard.

"On election night, people from all kinds of law firms were walking up to [Ballard] and acting like they knew him since Cub Scouts," said Mike McDaniel, a former Indiana Republican State Chairman and executive director of governmental affairs for Krieg Devault LLP. "If you're fighting for an office the way Greg Ballard fought for that office, you remember the people who were there when nobody else was around you."

John Lewis and Wilkins has other plans for growth, too.

This spring, it beefed up its health care practice by acquiring another local practice, adding attorneys Michael McMains and Jim Joven to its roster. And the firm plans to add a Florida office in mid-2008, spearheaded by Michelle Baldwin, a local attorney who specializes in tax law.

"Before the election, our business was blowing up," Lewis said, adding that the firm had a wait list for potential clients. "We expect that to continue at an even greater rate."

The firm hopes to maintain its steady growth rate, doubling its size within five years. But Lewis doesn't want to give up its close-knit culture. At large firms, the roster of attorneys can top 200 and the offices often take up many floors of downtown high-rises.

"Our selling point to attract attorneys is, 'Do you want to control your own destiny and be part of something personal or work in a setting where you don't know the people on the floor above you?'" he said.

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