A Misunderstanding Of “Law Firm” Donations to Politicians

Today I came across a meme that is similar to one I’ve seen many times.  It purports to list the biggest donors to Hillary’s campaign, showing large companies and “corporate” law firms, stating that Hillary has been bought by these groups.  I don’t have experience working at large corporations, but I do have experience working at a large law firm.  These memes show a gross understanding of how law firms work.

First, these memes conflate/confuse donations by a corporation/law firm and donations by people who work at a corporation or law firm.  Donation lists like these are actually showing donations by people who work somewhere, not the company/firm itself.

Second, I’m guessing that the people who make these memes have never worked in a law firm, let alone one like those that are found on these lists.  The law firms on top donor lists tend to be the largest, most prestigious, and most profitable law firms in the country.  The attorneys there tend to do pretty well financially.  They charge high hourly rates or, at times, large amounts for specific projects.  But they only get paid when they do work for paying clients, most of whom are large corporations or very wealthy individuals, those who can afford their high rates (most “corporate” law firms also have robust pro bono practices that do extremely important work, much of it for progressive causes, but that’s a separate issue).

And most legislation (or other acts) to “rig” the economy, to paraphrase the ubiquitous term, would not help these law firms.  I have a fair amount of white collar criminal experience.  A lot has been made about the supposed lack of interest in prosecuting people responsible for the Great Recession (and I know for a fact that a lot of time and effort was spent investigating potential crimes, but it’s a lot harder to build a white collar criminal case than it is to go on television and say someone is a criminal).  If, however, there were no investigations and no prosecutions due to influence from law firms, as is implied by certain politicians and memes, the law firms would have no work and no revenues.  In fact, I’ve heard stories, from knowledgeable people I trust, of criminal defense attorneys during the Bush administration complaining to federal prosecutors that they weren’t bringing enough cases and that the attorneys were too slow (on a related note, trials also bring more work and more money for law firms that investigations because they are more time intensive).

It’s similar for other areas of law.  People might think that corporate tax attorneys would want a simpler tax system with lower rates so their clients could pay less in taxes, perhaps a flat tax like the one advocated for by some politicians.  Nope.  Corporate tax attorneys prefer complicated tax codes because then they can charge higher rates based on their expertise.  A simpler system would hurt, not help them.  Lower tax rates would also hurt them because their advice would save less money and not be as valuable.

There are many areas of the law that could be changed to further insulate rich people and companies from liability and hurt the majority of Americans.  And most of those things would be harmful to attorneys.  Also, large law firms have many different work groups and many different clients.  What might be advantageous for one work group or attorney or client is not necessarily the case for another work group or attorney or client.  One attorney may only get hired when the FTC blocks a merger.  Another attorney may only get hired if there is no threat of the FTC blocking a merger.  And they could work in the same firm and donate to the same politician.

It’s a misunderstanding of how law firms work to think that many attorneys at big law firms are trying to buy politicians to further help the 1%.

Incentives matter.  We should care who donates to what politicians and what political causes, especially if we see behavior by politicians that indicates that their actions are being influenced by donors.  But it’s important to understand how the relevant incentives work.  Simply because a group makes donations doesn’t mean it is trying to buy a politician.

In truth, there are a lot of attorneys who are politically active.  Many are liberal, especially in big, coastal cities.  Many are conservative, especially in heavily Republican areas.  The vast majority of them donate to politicians because they believe in that politician’s policies and vision. There are millennials just starting their career who are libertarian and want lower taxes.  There are multi-millionaire partners who are liberal and would prefer that their own taxes be raised.  It does a disservice to informed discourse to take a list of donors and use that alone as an indication of anything other than who donated to a politician.


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