Recruiting, Hiring Took No Holiday

Posted September 9, 2005 at 4:41pm

Elliott Portnoy, who chairs the rapidly growing legislative practice at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, is accustomed to a slowdown in job inquiries during the sleepy August recess. With everyone fleeing the capital, the marketplace on K Street can often grind to a halt.

This year, though, Portnoy said his lobbying practice continued to collect resumes and conduct interviews at a faster clip than usual. And now with Congress gearing up for an extended fall season, the movement in the city’s lobbying corridor promises to pick up even more.

“We had just a flood of interest over August,” said Portnoy, who joined Sonnenschein in 2002 to start the firm’s lobbying group. “On my desk, I have these color-coded folders with all the individuals and groups we’re talking to. I don’t remember seeing this rainbow on my desk ever before. I don’t recall an August where there was as much interest and communications from public- and private-sector sources seeking to move.”

One pool of applicants, lobbyists and headhunters said, is from the Bush administration. A year into the administration’s second term, would-be lobbyists are looking to get out while there’s still time to call on their contacts still in office and command the $300,000 to $500,000 packages befitting a Bush insider.

Plus, some lobbyists and headhunters contend that administration officials might be worried about the midterm elections, when Republicans could face fallout from President Bush’s decreasing popularity over the Iraq war and the administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. Of course, no one wants to look like they’re jumping ship, and many people are simply in the conversation phase.

“We’ve had a number of expressions of interest from people in the administration, more than would ordinarily be the case this early in the administration,” Portnoy said.

Nels Olson, who runs the Washington, D.C., office of search firm Korn/Ferry International, said the political environment inside the administration is unusual.

“This is the most unique period in 50 years in the sense that there isn’t an incumbent president running for re-election or a vice president” who will make a bid for the office, Olson said. As a result, “a number of folks are thinking perhaps a little earlier than they normally would, ‘what’s next?’”

Ivan Adler, a principal at the executive search firm The McCormick Group, said “it looks like people in the administration have started to think about moving, senior people in the administration have started to think about moving. I think it’s always best to leave while the iron’s hot.”

Adler represents individuals looking for jobs as well as the lobbying and law firms who are looking to make hires.

By circling out of the executive branch, top officials can give “the administration a chance to reward some people by elevating them into other slots,” Adler said.

Ron Christie, executive vice president and director of global government affairs at Ruder Finn, said many firms are looking to make hires heading into the fall.

“I know I certainly am,” he said. “In August, I did not get one iota of vacation. It forces you to reassess what your personnel needs might be for the fall.”

Christie, who is a former special assistant to Bush, said he, too, has found that officials in the administration have their feelers out for jobs.

“I’ve spoken to a number of people both in the White House and the federal agencies, and they are quietly looking around for opportunities,” he said. “My sense of the timing is they are waiting to move until later in the year.”

But firms’ prospective employees aren’t limited to government officials. Portnoy said he’s also hearing from individuals and practice groups at rival lobbying shops.

“There seems to be a lot of movement but there’s no one particular factor that’s driving it,” he said. “But the timing works very well for us, given that we’ve tripled in three years. We’re looking at some tremendously talented individuals and groups.”

Not that either of these individuals is looking right now, but names on every recruiter’s wish list include Brenda Becker, assistant to the vice president for legislative affairs, and Candi Wolff, the White House’s top lobbyist.

Vincent Versage, a co-founder of the National Group, said he has noticed increased talk of people moving out of the administration.

“This is a very good time to start thinking of coming out of the administration,” said Versage, who focuses on appropriations lobbying. “Republicans are going to continue to be in power for a while.”

The hurricane and its aftermath, like other disasters, Versage said, won’t slow down the growth of the lobbying industry, so firms, corporations and associations likely will continue to make hires.

“When you have disasters, sometimes it’s even more necessary to have advocates” to make sure clients get funding or don’t get slammed with regulations they don’t want, he said.

Some of the highest profile job openings include the top slot at the National Federation of Independent Business.

“Our business has been robust, and I don’t see it slacking off,” said Leslie Hortum, managing partner of search firm Spencer Stuart’s D.C. office.

Stephanie Silverman, co-founder of Venn Strategies, said most firms are picking up administration officials who can be useful in the last half of the Bush presidency. Earlier this year, her firm snapped up Brian Reardon, who was a senior aide in the White House.

But, Silverman said, “The problem with saying that any particular season is one of change is that we’re in a constant state of change. It’s the hometown industry.”