Law central

Over the last 30 years, Washington DC has evolved as one of the key legal markets in the US, and indeed the world, and its emergence as a leading legal centre has shadowed the increasingly critical role the US government plays in the regulation of business and industry.`As the US's capital, as well as being home to Congress, the US Supreme Court and the executive branch, of which the US president is head, Washington DC is the heart of the complex network of governmental bodies that enact, administer and interpret the laws and regulations governing numerous aspects of business and industry. It is home to the regulatory agencies dealing with financial markets and banking institutions, competitive practices, telecommunications, healthcare, food, drug and consumer products, the environment, human rights, international trade, transportation and energy, among many others.`As the centre for US legislation and the administration of laws that are important to nearly every aspect of business, Washington DC has more lawyers per capita in the District of Columbia than any other city in the country, and some of the US's leading firms are headquartered there. The leading DC-based firms include, in order of size, Hogan & Hartson, Arnold & Porter, Covington & Burling, Shaw Pittman, Wilmer Cutler & Pickering and Howrey Simon Arnold & White. Together, according to The American Lawyer, they accounted for over $1bn (£698.9m) in fees for 2000.`DC law firms are traditionally known for their expertise in dealing with the complex legal issues that arise from the regulatory agencies that dominate the city's landscape, ranging from regulatory approvals for corporate transactions and ensuring compliance with regulations that affect core business strategies and operations, to litigation involving regulatory matters in the courts. A significant number of DC law firms have regulatory practices that appear before: the Federal Trade Commission; the Department of Justice; the Federal Communications Commission; the Food and Drug Administration; the Securities and Exchange Commission; the Commodity Futures Trading Commission; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Consumer Products Safety Commission; the Department of Transportation; the Department of Defense; the Department of Commerce; and the Department of Energy. Because of the critical role of the US government and public policy to the Washington legal scene, leading DC law firms draw upon former government officials with inside knowledge and expertise that can be critical in dealing effectively with government bodies.`Unlike some more geographically-orientated legal markets, DC firms draw upon a national US clientele, as well as global concerns that need to interface with the US government on legislative, regulatory or enforcement issues, and the client base is therefore not limited to companies from the DC area or the traditional industry trade associations. The US government itself is also a major client for many DC-based firms, as it has increasingly contracted for legal services with private firms, particularly in matters involving the government's entry into the commercial sphere. Increasingly, however, DC firms are looking to high-technology clients with transactional and litigation needs. They are also providing regulatory advice in Northern Virginia, and a number have established offices across the Potomac River in that state. Similarly, DC firms are expanding into the international arena in their effort to serve international clients with DC-centred legal issues.`DC firms' expertise in the regulatory arena has served as a springboard for many into litigation and transactional matters, particularly those involving regulatory requirements. For example, to secure Federal Communications Commission approval for a telecommunications or broadcast media acquisition, the corporate structure may need to be altered, making a DC firm with telecommunications and corporate transactional capability the logical choice. Much litigation may be either a direct outgrowth or governmental enforcement activity, as in the case of some private securities fraud class actions or antitrust treble damage lawsuits, or involves regulatory compliance issues, as in the case of a drug or consumer product recall leading to product liability class action litigation.`In the last year, the US capital has seen the US government sue Microsoft in the Federal Court, located in DC. That case is now on appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and is likely to be reviewed by the US Supreme Court. Microsoft represents a classic Washington DC case, involving the antitrust enforcement authorities at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission tackling cutting-edge regulatory issues and resulting high-stakes litigation that affects the core business strategy of a key player in the US and global economies. The Securities and Exchange Commission recently filed a suit against senior executives of Sunbeam Corporation, charging massive financial fraud when the company engaged in a fraudulent scheme to create the illusion of a successful restructuring of Sunbeam to facilitate the sale of the company at an inflated price.`Not knowing about – or not adhering to – the regulations that govern business with and within the US, can have disastrous consequences for corporations. n`Fern O'Brian spent 15 years practising in Washington DC and is now head of Arnold & Porter's London office