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Is Akin Gump the New King of K Street?

After years as the law and lobbying industry’s first runner-up, Patton Boggs’s recent crash means the perennial also-ran has come out on top—for now.

Illustration by Chris Philpot.

The first Monday in June began a new era for DC’s power peddlers. Over the weekend, the legendary law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs had finalized its merger with the Cleveland outfit Squire Sanders to create Squire Patton Boggs.

Both firms posted glowing marriage announcements on their websites—Squire Sanders celebrating its acquisition of not only a bigger base in the capital but also the town’s most storied lobbyist, Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. For its part, Patton Boggs gained new worldwide reach—the combined firm has offices in 21 countries—but everyone in the industry knew that Patton Boggs, in a tailspin for the past year and mired in fallout from a long-running, controversial case against Chevron, had been thrown a lifeline.

Far more interesting is what Akin Gump, for years the District’s second-place lobby shop, gets from the Squire Patton Boggs deal.

Akin had its own big announcements to make. The previous Thursday, it had made public a “significant expansion” of its health-care-policy team, with a group of seven led by veteran lobbyist John Jonas. That Monday brought news of four additions, led by telecommunications-policy partner Jennifer Richter. By week’s end, it had snagged five more health-care experts. All 16 recruits came from Patton Boggs. Anyone who knows anyone in the law/lobby trade could read between the lines: Akin Gump is poised to be the new king of K Street.

“Akin Gump is growing and taking work from Patton Boggs,” says a lobbyist from another high-ranking firm. “They’re positioned to be number one.”

Akin has run second to Patton Boggs in annual lobbying revenue since 2007, and Patton Boggs maintained its lead last year, posting $39.8 million to Akin’s $33.7 million. Compared with 2012, however, the totals represent a 13-percent drop for Patton and an 8-percent increase for Akin.

As Patton Boggs faltered, it faced frequent criticism that it relied too heavily on Boggs himself and had failed to institute a succession plan. (At the combined firm, Boggs is chairman emeritus.) Though Akin had its own struggles during the 2008 economic downturn, it may have benefited from its need to shake itself up periodically. Cofounder Bob Strauss, who died earlier this year, repeatedly left for political appointments, forcing partners to think beyond him. Today the firm is led by a relatively young female chair, Kim Koopersmith.

Not that Akin should get too comfortable. History shows that a firm’s time at the top is often fleeting. In 1998, a revered lobby shop called Verner, Liipfert was the highest-grossing in Washington. Patton came in first in 2003—one year after Verner, Liipfert was swallowed by a larger firm. Sound familiar?

The folks at Akin are wise to be cautious. Though he acknowledges that his firm may “very well be” number one, public-law-and-policy head Donald Pongrace says: “I haven’t done any of the math to figure it out. It doesn’t drive us because it doesn’t drive our clients.”

This article appears in the July 2014 of Washingtonian.

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