Spiegel & McDiarmid LLP began in 1967 when George Spiegel (1919–1997) decided to establish a law practice to champion consumers, communities and cooperatives in protecting their rights against private utility companies. The publicly-owned power systems that Spiegel chose to represent could often benefit their communities and promote economic development by charging lower rates to their residents and businesses than the neighboring for-profit utilities. In many cases, the for-profit utilities did not appreciate the competition and used their ownership and control of the electric transmission lines and gas pipelines (and other anti-competitive tactics) to deprive the smaller public systems of an equal opportunity to compete for resources and services.
In 1970, George recruited Bob McDiarmid, who had been an appellate lawyer in the Justice Department and Assistant to the General Counsel of what is now FERC. Together, George and Bob and their expanding firm were soon involved in strategically changing the landscape of the utility industry in the United States, primarily by introducing antitrust concepts to the energy regulation field. Successful appeals in the federal courts, including three seminal decisions of the Supreme Court, established the principle that then-reluctant federal agencies, such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission (and their predecessors), had to consider competitive circumstances and consequences in their regulation of electric and gas businesses. They promoted a “small utility bill of rights” to establish the rights of publicly owned utilities to obtain access to monopoly-controlled infrastructure facilities and effectively participate in the emerging energy marketplace. Over time, the markets and regulatory structures have become more sophisticated and complex, but the need to guard against anti-competitive exercise of market power remains.
As word of the firm’s successes spread, it attracted more and more clients from across the country, and the scope of services expanded beyond the energy industry. Today, the attorneys of Spiegel & McDiarmid continue to actively promote and protect the interests of publicly and cooperatively owned entities in other aspects of infrastructure development and services. Many of Spiegel & McDiarmid’s clients now provide telecommunications and broadband services for their communities. Others own and operate the airports that serve their communities. As they face new competitive or regulatory challenges, we work with them to find solutions.
In our constant search to find the best attorneys to meet the complex needs of our clients, we were among the first law firms to welcome lawyers without regard to gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. Using that expertise, Spiegel & McDiarmid has also engaged in various, sometimes controversial pro bono activities over the years. As examples, in the 1980s we represented an artist whose politically controversial artwork (critical of the incumbent Administration) was barred from appearing in purchased ad space in the DC Metro system. When the firm took this to the Court of Appeals, Judge Robert Bork (for a panel with Judges Antonin Scalia and Kenneth Starr) wrote the decision upholding our client’s (and the public’s) First Amendment right to express political speech.
Another pro bono case helped the residents of Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an underground coal mine fire has been burning for 50 years, obtain the right to be reasonably compensated for their homes as they were relocated from the path of the fire. The firm was recognized for another case, in which our visually impaired client’s unprecedented complaint before the Federal Communications Commission accelerated the inclusion by cell phone manufacturers of features that allow visually impaired persons to utilize cell phones.
From its inception, Spiegel & McDiarmid has enjoyed the privilege of representing clients who generally have much less money and resources than their competitors in major industries on which society depends, but who are dedicated to improving the economic well-being of the communities and members they serve.
Chambers & Partners USA has recognized Spiegel & McDiarmid as a leading law firm in the area of Energy: Electricity (Regulatory & Litigation), and many of our attorneys hold engineering degrees from top colleges and universities.
"Female attorneys at Spiegel are treated as equals- universally," declared one insider. Women partners with significant "clout" include Fran Francis, Cindy Bogorad, and Lisa Dowden. All practice in the energy department, and Lisa Dowden also co-heads the environmental practice. Spiegel is very accommodating on family matters, we were told. One associate, for example, requested the firm's approbation for a house move some distance from the office, which would require leaving fairly early in the evening. "Not only did the firm support the change in work schedule, but it bought me a laptop computer when I requested it to perform work on the train. The unquestioned support for my effort to improve my quality of life has meant a good bit to me," we were told. Diversity is highly valued at Spiegel and the firm has historically had quite a number of non-white attorneys. Currently, there is one senior female partner who is Asian, and there is considerable diversity within the associate population. Minority attorneys have "fit in well, enjoyed professional respect, excelled, and liked the firm," we were told. Spiegel makes "many extra efforts" to recruit minority law candidates. However, "given that the firm tends to recruit only at top-level schools, this area is highly competitive and it is difficult to land minority lawyers," one insider reported. In 1998, three out of the firm's five recruits were minorities. Spiegel also provides a comfortable environment for openly gay attorneys, of whom there have been several at the firm in recent years.
Beginning associates at Spiegel can choose their practice area, "as long as it is federal energy law," one insider noted wryly, while a second contact informed us that "all new associates will have to take energy cases. To be seen as avoiding energy cases is politically unwise." Almost without exception, each associate spends some period of time, "sometimes many long, hard months, working with one particular senior partner. This rite of passage is viewed with much trepidation, but we have accepted it much like death and taxes," we were told. There are no barriers between practice areas, however, and most associates split their time among several practice areas as their interests and the firm's needs dictate. Associates have to hustle to "get their own work, or risk being handed the dregs," we were told. In time, associates usually fall into a pattern of working with a certain handful of attorneys with whom they are comfortable. New associates as a general rule get to work very closely with senior associates, partners and senior partners. This experience is an "excellent baptism by fire," and leads to high levels of associate responsibility at early stages. However, many of the firm's partners are "not particularly adept" at mentoring or providing constructive feedback. Training is "completely" on-the-job, which has resulted in many cases of "long-term confusion by associates regarding substantive areas of law, gaps in lawyering and professional development skills, and damaged associate morale," remarked one insider, who added that "associates have repeatedly requested a more formalized associate training program but, although the partnership has verbally committed to developing such a program, it has not gotten off the ground." The degree of client contact varies to some extent by practice area. Practice areas other than energy have a lower partner-to-associate ratio and, therefore, associates in those practice areas have more client contact. The energy practice area is more partner-centric but, even there, associates can have significant client contact early on. One insider informed us that "in my years at the firm, I have had an extremely rewarding experience, and have led efforts for clients that have included preparing mayors for meetings with cabinet secretaries and testimony before Congress, managing coalitions of municipalities in regulatory and legislative lobbying efforts, and negotiating regulatory arrangements for cities with federal agencies. While these activities are not unusual for lawyers at Washington D.C. firms, Spiegel & McDiarmid has allowed me to do these things at a very early stage, and has placed confidence in me that has allowed me to advance as a professional and enjoy myself thoroughly." "A, By C, OR D" The firm reviews associates on an annual basis. Associates draft a self-evaluation memo and the partners read the memos before meeting as a group to evaluate each associate. At that point, a small group of partners (including the associate's mentor) meets with the associate to convey the partnership's comments. After the second year, letter grades (AJB,C,D) are given which are correlated to the chances of being offered a partnership. "A" means clearly partnership track; "B" means partner track with need for specific improvements; "C" means not on partner track unless concerns are addressed; and "D" means don't expect to last long. This grading system was requested by the associates several years ago to remove some of the ambiguity in the associate review process, but the firm has apparently not yet reached nirvana in this area. One insider remarked that "in my experience, associate review meetings are usually too informal, with a handful of partners in a disorganized, off-the-cuff discussion session. However, the review process has been improving, and I am pleased that partners seem to be trying to offer specific input, standards for future performance, and offers of assistance in professional development." At the end of the fourth year, the firm generally provides a fairly specific indication of partnership prospects. "I believe that Spiegel & McDiarmid will make any senior associate a partner, because they don't last that long at the firm unless they are a good fit, a good lawyer, and get along with the firm. Given the small number of associates, this is still possible, despite the top-heavy structure of the firm," one contact observed. The firm's management is concentrated in an executive director and an elected five-member management committee. Two of the senior partners, Bob McDiarmid and Bob Jablon, are "perennially elected" whereas other membership varies. All decisions at Spiegel must go through the management committee, which is fairly accessible to all lawyers, although "an issue has to rise in importance to realty get on the radar screen and get attention," we were told. The management committee, as expected, is a very influential body at the firm, particularly the two partners that have been "on the committee forever." There are also a couple of other influential partners who have gained clout through their "solid leadership and persuasive abilities." However, "these lawyers seem to be often frustrated that the management structure of the firm dilutes their efforts to lead and manage the firm," we were told. It was also pointed out to us that Spiegel is not fully attentive to organizational matters. In particular, "things are often disorganized and there is little structure. The firm has a tendency-against which it struggles--to let important long-term matters like training and marketing slip in favor of more immediate needs." Spiegel has an annual State of the Firm meeting for attorneys at which the partnership shares a fair amount of financial information, including firm wide revenues, expenses and profits and average partner compensation. An associates committee meets monthly and focuses on such issues as associate training and development, support for new employees, efforts to influence the firm's strategic and management decisions, and firm morale. Spiegel & McDiarmid is facing "significant transition issues in the coming decade, as its traditional fare of work changes with legal and industry restructuring, and as its founding partners approach their later years," according to one insider. Spiegel's salaries are "significantly" less than the top D.C. firms and are probably closer to other medium- and small-size D.C. firms. One contact remarked that "the trade-off in salary for the fulfilling work and the autonomy are the reasons that I have stayed with the firm. I believe my quality of life is good at Spiegel," while another insider noted that the firm's lower salaries are a result of Spiegel's decision to "represent municipal clients, at discounted rates, and its refusal to sacrifice its ideals for profits." While billable hour pressure at the firm presently is modest, "in the past, it was nonexistent," and there still is considerable reluctance to make it an issue. "At the same time, there is presently more than enough work to go around, so longer hours are required just to get it done," we were told. Spiegel has a billable hour "goal" of 1800 hours, but "I'm not aware of anyone being criticized for failing to meet it," one person noted. The bonus at Spiegel, small by D.C. standards, is not based on merit; it is a fixed percentage that comes automatically each year. The firm is doing "very well" financially and Spiegel's contribution to the profit-sharing plan was higher this year than in past years. Benefits at the firm are "fine, although the firm cannot really afford things like subsidized health club membership. The only fringes at Spiegel are a free juice bar and a week of paid paternity/maternity leave (plus five weeks of pregnancy disability leave)," we were told. Many attorneys at Spiegel have families and thus don't do much after-hours socializing. Moreover, "spontaneous" social activities at Spiegel & McDiarmid have "declined remarkably over the years," we were told, but socializing at the firm is not totally moribund. Younger associates and paralegals tend to "hang out" at the firm's longstanding Friday happy hour, and twice each month attorneys and paralegals join for a big lunch that provides both social interaction and "the opportunity to talk about big developments, cross-market business opportunities, etc." The firm also holds a Holiday Party each year that is "fun and family-friendly."