Forced to take networking virtual by pandemic, K Street may never go back

Online policy panels have more reach, less stress and cost

Akin Gump partner Arshi Siddiqui, here in 2009, has been dubbed the firm’s Oprah Winfrey for her skills moderating online panels. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Akin Gump partner Arshi Siddiqui, here in 2009, has been dubbed the firm’s Oprah Winfrey for her skills moderating online panels. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 10, 2020 at 5:30am

In the pre-pandemic before times, lobbyist Bruce Mehlman would spend weeks curating a guest list for his self-described nerdy luncheons featuring authors, policy wonks and executives in downtown D.C. Now, he blasts out an email, sets up a Zoom room and can gather more than 100 for virtual events, such as one he hosted Wednesday with Steve Case, the former CEO of AOL. 

“Things that used to be small, local and high friction have become large, global and near zero marginal cost,” said Mehlman, who runs Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas and also serves as an adviser to FiscalNote, CQ Roll Call’s parent company. “Events such as these are among the things that are going to continue well post-pandemic.”

K Street lobbyists have embraced the virtual world for networking events, policy panels and client conferences, in many cases nabbing big-name speakers, including members of Congress, governmental officials and business executives. Though Zoom interactions may never fully replace the glad-handing of in-person hobnobbing, most lobbyists like Mehlman expect virtual sessions to endure long after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. 

Such events are free but ingratiate lobbyists with clients, potential clients and, of course, Washington’s policymakers on whom they may rely for future decisions amid the political tumult of a new Congress and a new administration. 

The city’s largest lobbying practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld convened clients and contacts last Friday for an online session hosted by partner Arshi Siddiqui, who previously worked for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The firm’s Joe Donnelly, a former Democratic senator from Indiana, was among those who presented. 

The Oprah of K Street

Hunter Bates, a leader of Akin Gump’s public law and policy practice and a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said colleagues had dubbed Siddiqui the Oprah Winfrey of the lobby shop for her moderating skills.   

Siddiqui called the firm’s policy panels one of the pandemic’s few bright spots, enabling clients and colleagues around the globe to huddle together and mingle virtually with a bipartisan collection of boldfaced names. Before the election, the firm hosted Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat who plans to depart Congress for a high-level position in the Biden administration, among others. 

Siddiqui said the firm began earlier in the pandemic doing audio-only events before Bates took the lead in shifting to video.

“The technology actually works better than being in person,” she said, noting that she can see participant questions live and move the conversation to what’s top of mind. For the webinar last Friday, she said, she expected much of the program to focus on the transition period; instead, the audience wanted to look further ahead to policy priorities in the next Congress and administration. 

The conclusion was that tax, health care and immigration policy would remain at the forefront.   

Bates said the Friday session, which was off the record, received the biggest number of RSVPs to date with 600 signing up. That compares with the 30- to 40-person headcount back when the firm held in-person events. 

“It’s a great way to be able to connect with current clients as well as other people who are talking with you that may be trying to get a sense of our depth and breadth of policy experience,” Bates said. 

Meeting face to face

Bates expects face-to-face events to return when it’s safe for groups to gather again, but he said the web-based functions won’t go away either.      

Same for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the city’s biggest-spending lobbying group. The chamber conducted 1,567 virtual meetings and events between March 16 and Dec. 4, according to spokeswoman Sabrina Fang.  

Tim Peckinpaugh, a partner at the lobbying and law firm K&L Gates, has helped coordinate his shop’s long-standing meet-and-greet program to build ties to incoming members of Congress. This year, he didn’t want to suspend the sessions, which have spanned three decades, so they moved it online. 

Like others on K Street, the shift allowed for more clients and colleagues to log on, he said, roughly doubling attendance to about 50 people. He declined to say which members-elect have signed up but said the firm held one before Thanksgiving and scheduled another session for Thursday.  

“It actually allowed for bigger participation, which is a nice thing,” Peckinpaugh said, adding that the members-elect also had the flexibility to sign on from back in their home districts or from Capitol Hill.

But the downsides persist too. 

“You never can capture the ability to see a person face to face across the table in a more intimate setting, where the conversation is more free-flowing,” he said. No one gets those brief moments to chat privately or to “buttonhole them in the elevator” in the virtual world, he added.

Virtually 'flying' in

K&L Gates, like other K Street shops, has hosted clients for virtual fly-ins, trying to replace the actual trips that brought them to Washington. One client that had to cancel its fly-in this month instead logged on for meetings with senators, a member-elect, chiefs of staff and other officials.     

“You avoid a long flight, paying a hotel bill, but again there’s no chance to have any interaction beyond putting a question in the chat box,” he said.

For his part, Mehlman sees more pluses than minuses in moving online. 

He was sold after rescheduling a canceled luncheon talk with author P. W. Singer, who wrote “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.” He’s also hosted Zoom chats with David Rubenstein, founder of the private equity firm Carlyle Group.  

“We’re not monetizing,” Mehlman said. “And we’re not inherently viewing it as a business thing.”