For three years in a row, the total amount of on-the-record federal lobbying cash has slumped. For three years in a row, Thorn Run Partners’ piece of that total has jumped.
Ditto for Clark, Geduldig, Cranford & Nielsen; Shockey Scofield Solutions and Thorsen French Advocacy. Elmendorf Ryan hit its all-time high last year with more than $10 million in lobbying revenue.
The firms are a mix of partisan makeup. Clark Geduldig is staunchly Republican, while Elmendorf Ryan employs all Democrats. Thorn Run is rabidly bipartisan.
Somehow, though, amid congressional stalemate, a gloomy national economy and an effort on K Street to push advocacy work to the underground, these firms have reported more money out of an increasingly shrinking pot of fees made public under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
Some of the shops’ owners credit their size (each employs fewer than 10 registered lobbyists) as an advantage over the biggest firms with their often similarly big overhead. Others say they are part of a new generation of nimble K Street entrepreneurs who understand the changing business of influencing Washington and can easily morph into high-level, team-oriented client consiglieres.
“It’s not that lobbyists serve less of a function; it’s that influencing has become more difficult,” said Thorn Run co-founder Andy Rosenberg, whose clients include the Continuing Medical Education Coalition. “All eyes continue to be on Washington. But sometimes it’s about, ‘How do you figure out which official in an agency is really driving a particular policy and how do you influence that person?’”
John Scofield, a former Appropriations Committee aide who lobbied at the larger Podesta Group before starting Shockey Scofield, said clients get a better value with little businesses.
“With a smaller firm, there’s a lot more flexibility with the clients and in our work days,” Scofield said. “In some respects, it’s more of a team atmosphere because you have to be interchangeable because there are only three of us. You have to always be able to pinch hit for each other.”
Scofield said he and his two colleagues eschew staff meetings, try to keep overhead to a minimum in their Eastern Market digs and don’t need to navigate a bureaucracy when deciding whether to take on a new client or how to approach a client’s particular problem.
“We’re not setting up 100 Hill meetings a month. We’re not spinning our wheels doing busy work,” said Scofield, whose clients include Boeing, Genentech, the National Chicken Council and T-Mobile. “We’re doing high-level Hill strategic meetings."
Though Shockey Scofield’s 2013 LDA revenue of $3.4 million might seem underwhelming when compared with the $40.2 million Patton Boggs, the largest lobbying practice, reported for last year, Shockey Scofield produced $1.1 million per lobbyist. Patton Boggs, with 96 registered lobbyists in 2013, produced $420,000 per lobbyist.
Patton Boggs saw its revenue decline about 13 percent between 2012 and 2013 and cut 65 employees last year. But it had its fifth consecutive year with more than $40 million in LDA money and continues its reign at the top.
“We remain the trusted advisers to a highly envied roster of clients who rely on us to protect their interests in Washington,” said Patton Boggs spokesman Elliott J. Frieder.
Some of the littlest shops’ lobbyists say they have no aspirations of getting Patton Boggs big.
"Honestly, we don't pay attention to spending trends in the marketplace,” said Thorsen French’s GOP partner Carl Thorsen, whose clients include the Directors Guild of America and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. “We love what we do, and our names are on the door for a reason, and we're proud that most of our clients have been with us since day one. Our plan is to keep it small and focus on doing good work, not to prioritize growing our business. To date, this approach has worked for us, but revenue is only one factor in the way we measure our success.”
Steve Clark of Clark, Geduldig, Cranford & Nielsen, said, “Our focus has always been to care more and work harder for our clients. When we do that, everything else takes care of itself.”
Rosenberg, a Democrat who previously worked at Patton Boggs and other firms, said some of the bigger shops struggle with how to illustrate their value to clients. “The older, more traditional firms, they sometimes don’t even know how to define success,” he said.
After all, gauging victory by simply getting a bill passed or killed on Capitol Hill is so old fashioned.