Photo provided by Proskauer Rose

Photo provided by Proskauer Rose

Last fall, Proskauer Rose acquired one of the nation's most prominent employee-benefits lawyers, Paul Hamburger, who made the move from McDermott Will & Emery's Washington, D.C. office. The timing could not have been better for Proskauer given the changing regulatory environment and legislative developments, such as health care reform, that will be generating additional work in the practice area. The acquisition establishes a D.C. presence for Proskauer's employee-benefits practice.

Hamburger was joined by fellow partners Todd Castleton, Eugene Holmes and James Napoli. The team advises companies on all types of employee-benefits issues, such as retirement plans, executive-compensation plans, and COBRA and ERISA matters. The practice includes advising companies on benefits issues arising in M&As and representing employers before regulatory agencies.

Lawdragon: Can you describe why you decided to make the move to Proskauer?

Paul Hamburger: The move was prompted by the direction that our work was taking us. We saw huge synergies between the labor-employment side and benefits. Proskauer has had a renowned practice but was missing a benefits stronghold in D.C. Given where the law has been gravitating, this was an ideal time to make the move, particularly on the heels of the firm's newly integrated Employee Benefits, Executive Compensation & ERISA Litigation Practice Center.

LD: Can you describe some of the firm's motivation in wanting to have an employee benefits practice in D.C. - what the strategic vision is?

PH: Part of the strategic vision is to further expand the depth and scope of Proskauer's national benefits practice. The enhancement of Proskauer's capabilities in Washington, D.C., at a time when the legislative and regulatory environment presents especially complex and growing challenges to both employers and public and private retirement and health plans, is a critical element of the firm's strategic plan.

LD: What are some of the challenges of establishing a firm's foothold in a practice for a new region?

PH: The vast majority of the clients that we worked with in the past have continued with us, and we've attracted new business as well. The biggest challenges to establishing a new presence fall into two categories - internal and external. The internal challenge is to establish a group on the ground that fits with the firm and can be integrated easily.

We are a group that works as a team - we're in constant contact, have regular meetings and function in a way in which each of knows what the others are doing. When we're internally marketing and exporting our services, we are all here and available and can pitch in terms of allocating resources. We're not a collection of separate individuals each with their own practices.

Externally, the hurdle is letting other lawyers and clients know we're here and communicating our value proposition.

LD: Can you describe what's been going on in your practice in recent years? Has the focus shifted in light of the economy? For example, are you doing less advising on benefit matters tied to M&As given the slowdown in transactional work?

PH: With respect to M&A, while there are still deals, there are fewer, although the environment seems poised to pick up. But shifts in legislations and regulations have impacted the practice the most. There are new laws that must be complied with both in operations and in practice and documents. That's what's been keeping us busy - there is a lot of work in this area.

LD: What are some of the big issues your practice will see in the years ahead as a result of the financial crisis and the changing regulatory environment?

PH: The changing regulatory and legislative environment, like health care reform, is going to drive issues a lot more than the economy. There are benefits issues associated with a downturn. There are benefits issues associated with an upturn. There are different issues at either end of the economic spectrum. I've been doing this since 1985, and I haven't had a slow year. Also, when you have a national practice, you are not limited to a particular region. That gives you the diversity to be able to really capitalize on our strengths across legal specialties and offices across the country.

LD: [Editor's note: A public relations representative who arranged the interview between Lawdragon and Hamburger asked him to compare the dot-com downturn to today's business climate.]

PH: Let's look at it as the whole market bust - that is, the dot coms went under but then the whole market crashed triggering a ripple effect. Our clients are big companies, so a lot of them had 401(k) plans with investment options in, among other things, employer stock. That led to all kinds of benefit claims and consulting work related to defending against those types of claims. In some cases, it led to litigation where we had to help employers defend against stock drop claims. More broadly, however, the economic downturns impacted not only 401(k) plans but the whole array of employee benefits including pension plans, health & welfare plans, executive compensation and fringe benefits. The big picture issues really stay the same with each economic downturn; it is just that when there is such a widespread downturn, as is true currently, the issues affect a lot more employers and employees.

Another issue when there are big market-driven events relates to the legislative response. Congress has a habit of enacting legislation designed to help employers deal with economic uncertainty. Also, the regulators issue guidance along the same lines. When that happens, employers come to us to help them interpret and apply the new rules. The recent COBRA subsidy rules are a good example of that. Congress enacted a COBRA subsidy to help workers who lost their jobs involuntarily. Now, Congress is poised to extend that legislative protection. Each time these rules are changed, employers need to evaluate and apply the new rules quickly.

Finally, the country being at war has also had an impact. Benefits issues arise when employees get called into active duty, for example. Every major issue that comes up, to the extent that it affects people's employment and benefits, impacts what we do.

LD: Can you describe what the present issue is with cash-balance pension plans and what type of work that is generating?

PH: This is a very complex area and is not easily answered in a short answer. Generally, there are still a number of technical pension accrual rules and age discrimination rules being worked out in the regulatory arena and, to an extent, the courts. Although many of the big issues on age discrimination and other technical issues were resolved through the Pension Protection Act, issues remain outstanding for prior years and for interpreting and applying the new rules going forward. The IRS has issued proposed guidance; but until final rules are issued, sponsors really don't know what to do. When that final guidance is published, there will be more plan amending to do and there could be some additional litigation.

LD: What else is particularly hot right now?

PH: Right now, we're focusing on year-end compliance issues, executive compensation issues, assisting clients with year-end deals, and helping clients implement changes in regulations and legislation.

LD: How has the move gone so far? What do you like about working at Proskauer?

PH: What I like most is the depth of internal resources and legal talent as well as the general feeling that we're working as a tight, integrated team. We're moving, there's a lot happening for all of our clients. We have been busy from day one and continue to be busy as we learn about our newfound capabilities at Proskauer and that makes it very interesting, exciting, and fun.

LD: Are you planning to expand the practice at Proskauer D.C. beyond the group that moved with you?

PH: Absolutely. We just hired a new associate, who is going to start in January, and we are looking at one or two others in complementary areas - core people that practice in related benefits areas.