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Supporting politicians: Legal industry among biggest contributors to campaigns

Rebecca Berfanger
January 1, 2008
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 Attorneys' total contributions nationally to 2008 presidential candidates*: If you've been getting calls since the primaries or even earlier, asking you to donate to political party A or candidate B, or to help to spread the word about issue C, you're not alone.

It's no secret that attorneys - whether as individuals or as a combined effort of attorneys in a firm - contribute to campaigns.

In federal campaigns in 2004 and so far this year, Indiana lawyers are listed as second in terms of contributions after retirees, according to OpenSecrets.org, the Web presence of the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles information from the Federal Election Commission and other sources about campaign giving in presidential and congressional races.

"I really do believe as a profession we have a greater understanding of our civic responsibility than others," said Kipper Tew of Krieg DeVault. Tew has worked in the government affairs field since 1989 and is also currently serving as the senior advisor with Barack Obama for President Indiana.

What may be less known is why attorneys give, how much they care about appearing partisan or non-partisan, and what they ultimately use to make a decision to write a check - or not. One reason attorneys give is simple: they are asked.

"Many law firms interact with government and elected officials so they're known to the campaigns already," said Daniel Seitz, managing principal of Bose Public Affairs Group, which is affiliated with Bose McKinney & Evans in Indianapolis. Seitz has worked in the Indiana legislature and with Indiana regulatory agencies since the early 1970s.

"In particular, if you're talking about Indianapolis, you're talking about one set of circumstances. But if you're talking about a county seat in a rural county, those lawyers are among the community's leaders in those small communities," Seitz said.

Some attorneys may be more proactive than others, he said, but most "know they're going to be asked but won't necessarily seek the opportunity."

John P. Bushemi, a lawyer who served in the Indiana Senate from 1976 to 1990 and recently joined Hoeppner Wagner & Evans in Valparaiso to lead the state government affairs team, added another reason attorneys are sought out.

"Attorneys ... have the financial ability to make contributions," Bushemi said. "I believe this is generally known to the community."

Sheila Suess Kennedy, professor of law and public policy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis School of Public & Environmental Affairs, said when it comes to campaigns for judges and attorneys general, her impression is that attorneys are a more "significant source of contributions" than the general public.

"Lawyers, after all, have a stake in who serves that is different from citizens' interest in the quality of the judiciary," Kennedy wrote via e-mail from a conference in Montana. "Lawyers who practice in the courts are also (arguably) more informed since they not only see judges perform on a day-to-day basis, but are much more likely to have the information and specialized background to make considered, professional judgments."

But when it comes to candidates in general, she said, "the picture changes; lawyers are not a particularly significant source of funding, and the choice made by an individual lawyer is based on the same considerations that motivate other voters."

There's a fine line when it comes to firms that may not want to appear to their clients as being partisan - especially clients who are on the other side of the aisle.

This may be why firms encourage attorneys to participate in the political process but don't necessarily tell them which side to take. When it comes to which candidate to donate to, Tew and other attorneys who practice at firms interviewed for this story said it's ultimately up to the attorney, not the firm.

"Lots of folks in our firm give to folks they believe in regardless of party, and some only give to candidates of the party they favor," Tew said.

Attorney Bob Grand, who serves as an advisor to many Indiana Republican candidate committees and is the managing partner of the Indianapolis office of Barnes & Thornburg, said, "I would think most firms would have people giving to both sides, but I'm not aware of the firm encouraging giving to one side or the other."

Whether a firm wants to appear partisan mainly depends on the size of the firm and how involved they are in local politics and political issues, Seitz said.

"The large Indianapolis firms are all in one way or another politically involved," Seitz said. "So they are going to seek a balance. I know there are partners and members of those firms who are Republicans, and other partners and members who are Democrats."

However, smaller firms may be more "politically distinct," he said, which is "probably driven by history of founding member or members who were politically active and part of the culture of the firm was political involvement."

Bushemi added some candidates may try to avoid a label as one party or the other "because firms have members who are both Democrat and Republican, and most important, we serve clients who are both Democrat and Republican."

At the end of the day, Seitz said attorneys are like any other person when it comes to which candidate gets a check.

"Certainly the individual contributors tend to have an affinity for one party or another. ... How they give is an individual decision," Seitz said. "Some give to both party candidates. Not necessarily for the same office, but from experience I know they do, and why not? There are a lot of independents out there."

The only real difference between how attorneys give compared to the rest of the population may depend on how one candidate may handle an issue that's important to their clients. For instance, if an attorney represents businesses, they may be interested in how a candidate's proposed policies may affect those businesses, Grand said.

While firms and attorneys may not expect to have any perks simply for giving to a campaign, many firms and attorneys are already involved in the political process in one way or another, and participating in a campaign is another way to network, Grand said.

Tew and Seitz added that working with a campaign also may help get access to people in politics when they want to reach them about a particular issue that is of interest to attorneys or their clients.

"There is no doubt that politicians of every stripe tend to remember those who support them if all other things are equal," Tew said.

"But politicians and attorneys make big errors if they overdo it or don't keep the taxpayer or the client in mind when awarding or performing under contracts," he added. "Most politicians have figured out that it is important to spread the work around."

Because it's not a requirement to declare one's occupation or employer when giving to a campaign, it's difficult to know exactly how much lawyers give in terms of volunteer hours and donations.

However, sources interviewed for this story said if one attorney or firm changed donation patterns, it wouldn't make much difference, but as a whole, the legal community does have a significant impact on the process.

"I am not sure the legal community is completely aware of how much we contribute," Tew said. "The fact is that we should be very proud as a profession." •

 
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