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A Q&A On Being A Midwestern FCPA Lawyer

The FCPA bar is mostly concentrated in Washington, D.C. and New York City.  Yet outside the beltway and financial center of the country, there are also lawyers with successful practices devoted to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and related issues.

One such lawyer is Indianapolis based Trent Sandifur [1]– a partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister.  In this Q&A, Sandifur discusses how he became interested in the FCPA and his Midwest FCPA practice.

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Describe your anti-corruption practice and experience?

I am a partner in the Indianapolis office of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, a law firm of about 350 attorneys with seven offices in Ohio, Indiana, Northern Kentucky, and Arizona.  I help lead Taft’s FCPA & International Anti-Corruption practice area and handle the full spectrum of anti-corruption matters – compliance programs, due diligence, training, internal reviews and investigations, and government investigations and enforcement defense.  I have worked on anti-corruption matters involving countries throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe for clients ranging from individuals to large multinational corporations.

Like most anti-corruption attorneys, my practice has grown substantially over the last few years in response to greater corporate awareness of FCPA and UK Bribery Act risks.  Unlike most anti-corruption attorneys, I am an Army JAG Corps major and serve part-time in the Army National Guard.  In my military capacity, I have conducted corruption-related investigations and worked on anti-corruption compliance matters in Afghanistan.  While there are obvious cultural differences between the corporate world and the Army, my military experience has informed nearly every aspect of my anti-corruption practice at Taft – particularly when it comes to conducting internal investigations, providing training, and managing risk.

How did you become interested in the FCPA?

I first became interested in the FCPA in 1999, while studying in Notre Dame’s London Law Program and clerking in the London office of a US-based firm during my second year of law school.  At the time, the FCPA was a seldom-enforced law of limited practical consequence, not the compliance headliner it is today.  I was fortunate to be exposed to the FCPA as a law student because of the London Law Program’s internationally-focused coursework and the needs of the clients I was assisting.

After law school, I enrolled in the University of Chicago’s one-year international relations master’s degree program while preparing to start my active duty service obligation in the Army JAG Corps.  The University of Chicago is where my interest in the FCPA really took off, which I credit to the influence of Bob Tarun, an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago Law School at the time.  Bob is one of the top FCPA attorneys in the country and the author of The FCPA Handbook (if you are an anti-corruption attorney, a copy of this book should be on your desk).  I was a student in a small seminar that Bob taught on white collar criminal law in which we discussed the FCPA.  Bob’s FCPA insights fascinated me, and I became enthralled with the FCPA because it stood at the intersection of white collar criminal law, international law, international relations, and foreign cultures.

Indianapolis is not known as an FCPA hotbed.  What was your path to establishing an FCPA practice?

In the Army JAG Corps I happened to be in the right place at the right time because, a few months after completing initial JAG training and Airborne School, I was assigned to the Department of Justice (“DOJ”).  I served three years as one of a few full-time Special Assistant US Attorneys in the Army who investigate and prosecute civilian felonies with an Army connection.  My experience with the DOJ put me on a fast track to having an anti-corruption practice because I learned how to investigate and try complex criminal cases.  I also gained a deep understanding of the DOJ’s culture and compliance expectations, which is invaluable for any anti-corruption attorney.

Shortly after starting at an Indianapolis firm, I happened to be in the right place at the right time again because we merged into Taft.  The merger more than tripled our size, added six offices, greatly increased the number of clients we had with FCPA needs, gave us international reach, and most importantly, provided attorneys with deep FCPA knowledge, skills, and experience.  Those attorneys and I became the foundation for Taft’s FCPA & International Anti-Corruption practice area, the growth of which over the last four years has allowed me to focus my practice almost exclusively on anti-corruption law.  I understand that Indianapolis and other Midwestern cities, aside from Chicago, are not the historical FCPA hotbeds that places like Washington DC and New York City are, but we have succeeded in building an anti-corruption practice not in spite of our location, but largely because of it.

What advantages and disadvantages do attorneys at regional law firms have compared to attorneys at large multinational law firms and what advice do you have for Midwestern attorneys who want to build an FCPA practice?

Anti-corruption attorneys at regional law firms have several advantages over attorneys at large multinational law firms.  With hourly rates that typically are one-third to one-half the hourly rates of large multinational law firms, regional law firm attorneys in the Midwest and other areas of the country with similar law firm overhead costs have an inherent advantage in price.  Broadly speaking, anti-corruption attorneys at regional law firms also have an advantage in client service over anti-corruption attorneys at large multinational law firms.  The greater agility and flexibility of regional law firms typically allows attorneys to innovate more rapidly in response to constantly-evolving anti-corruption risks than attorneys with large multinational law firms and correspondingly large global bureaucracies.

Anti-corruption attorneys at regional law firms also must address several factors with the potential to become disadvantages.  For example, anti-corruption attorneys at large multinational law firms often have broad, national anti-corruption reputations due in large part to the geographic reach of their firms.  Therefore, anti-corruption attorneys at regional law firms must ensure that their reputations are equally broad and strong by providing superior services and devoting meaningful time to anti-corruption speaking engagements, writing, and related practice development activities at the national and international level.  Large multinational law firms also, by definition, have overseas offices.  Regional law firm anti-corruption attorneys must therefore develop strong relationships with foreign law firms (or friendly US-based law firms with overseas offices) to gain assistance with overseas investigations, language issues, local knowledge, etc.

These advantages and potential disadvantages are relevant only to the extent that the quality of anti-corruption services, by far the most important factor in winning anti-corruption work and building a successful anti-corruption practice, is equal between a given regional law firm attorney and large multinational law firm attorney.  As recent financial penalties and prison sentences attest, the results of an ineffective anti-corruption compliance program or a shoddy internal anti-corruption investigation that lacks credibility with the government can be disastrous.  If regional law firm attorneys fail to develop and provide the highest-quality anti-corruption services, nothing else matters – especially when it comes to “nuclear events” like government investigations.  However, if regional law firm attorneys provide top-end anti-corruption services, they put themselves in an excellent position to compete for and win anti-corruption work.

This “large multinational law firm quality with regional law firm prices and service” strategy has helped build Taft’s anti-corruption practice and is a strategy that I am confident would lead to success for other regional law firms in the Midwest.  You do not need a 212 or 202 area code to be an outstanding anti-corruption attorney, and I am hopeful that as more regional law firms in the Midwest develop robust anti-corruption practices, a strong Midwestern anti-corruption bar will emerge.