Washington’s highest-grossing firm last year, Hogan & Hartson, earned more than $362 million. The pie is split not by shareholders but by 161 equity partners, whose investment in their firm returns almost $1,000,000 a partner.
Now picture a law firm going public, as Cassidy & Associates, a lobbying firm, once tried to do. Then the law firm would have to weather the vagaries of industry analysts and noisy stock pickers like Jim Cramer of MSNBC’s Mad Money.
Here is how someone like Cramer might rate Washington law firms if we could all buy, sell, or hold:
Wiley Rein & Fielding ($6.93): Watch for stock to jump after firm posts $200-million win in BlackBerry suit. Revenues in 2007 expected to wildly exceed past expectations. Some say the tech case was a one-hit wonder. But we are betting that BlackBerry-slayer Jim Wallace will now be Washington’s go-to patent guy. Twelve-month target price: $12.
Akin Gump ($13.28): After some lean years, Robert Strauss’s creation is poised for a turnaround, thanks to hardheaded top manager Bruce McLean. Already DC’s second-largest lobbying firm with $67 million in revenue; we believe that once Akin Gump gets its litigation wing in gear, a restructured, leaner firm purrs on all cylinders. Target price: $20.
Dickstein Shapiro ($13.11): High-octane revenue growth fueled by decision to partially abandon billable-hours model and gamble on contingency cases has huge payoff potential. Strategy is paying off, and insiders say more large cases are headed its way. Target price: $30.
Williams & Connolly ($13.33): Bull market in scandal plays to the hand of Washington’s premier refuge for the baddest of the bad guys. Williams & Connolly is, quite simply, the best of breed. You must own it. Target price: $18.
Zuckerman Spaeder ($3.20): One of last high-quality small firms after rivals, like Miller Cassidy, swallowed up by national megacaps. Star defense lawyer Bill Taylor one of town’s top rainmakers. Huge upside. Target price $5.
WilmerHale ($14.17): The numbers for 2005 were good. Wilmer reported record earnings after merger with Boston’s Hale & Dorr. But rumors persist that cultural aspects of marriage could continue to be unsettling in the near term. A plus: Securities lawyer Bill McLucas has the biggest corporate-fraud/SEC practice in town. Target: $18.
Covington & Burling ($11.27) : Classy Covington is a true blue-chip law firm that represents clients like Pfizer, the National Football League, and IBM. Only question is whether former partner Paul Tagliabue’s retirement as NFL head will cause the league to take its lucrative business elsewhere. Safe investment but growth prospects questionable. Target $14.
Hogan & Hartson ($10.93): Analysts say cost containment continuing problem for DC’s highest-grossing law firm. But high-quality management, led by Warren Gorrell Jr., seems on top of the issues. Growth of past years needs to be absorbed. With more than 1,000 lawyers, Hogan is simply too big. Target $14.
Steptoe & Johnson ($11.20): Modest revenue increases in 2005 after several years of explosive growth. Bottom line may have peaked, and loss of high-profile Bernie Ebbers case couldn’t have helped. Investor value lies in lucrative practice of star trial attorney Reid Weingarten. A Weingarten spinoff would be an attractive investment, but don’t count on it. Target price: $10.
Arnold & Porter ($11.21): Insiders smell trouble ahead for DC’s most politically correct local firm. A&P may have overhired for series of drug-company trials and is now being pressured to cash in on partnership promises while litigation is drying up. The associate “backlog,” as Arnold insiders call it, may affect the bottom line. Target price: $10.
Howrey ($11.05): High-level defections worry potential investors—it’s the law-firm equivalent of insider selling. Firm has lost key attorneys in white collar, defense, antitrust, and intellectual property. Efforts to build offices in far-flung locales, like Salt Lake City, may not bear fruit; high-profile cases going elsewhere. Target price: $8.
Patton Boggs ($5.58): Efforts to enter outside-the-Beltway markets, like Seattle, not going as planned. Sell, sell, sell. Target price $6.
Stock prices are a computation of firm revenue minus likely expenses divided by equity partners divided by 100. Higher numbers reflect greater 2005 profitability.