WASHINGTON As banks find themselves in hot water with the Department of Justice's fairlending prosecutors, they are increasingly turning to the Washington office of the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flora law firm.
The office's 13-member team has represented Shawmut National Bank and Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank in their cases with the department. It also is representing ,Barnett Banks Inc:, which the Ju.stice Department has said it is planning to sue.
And lawyers at the firm say they have a long list of other bank clients with similar fair-lending problems that have not yet become public.
Robert S. Bennett. the dean of the firm's fair-lending group, said Skadden Arps became a leader because st entered the field early.
"Lawyers have to be like weathermen," Mr. Bennett, said: "You have to be a forecaster: You have to- know where the government is going to go."
The firm compiled the fairlending team in 1992 as a natural extension of its expansive banking practice. It drew in three principals-- Mr. Bennett for the courtroom experience, Andrew Sandler to handle litigation, and William J. Sweet Jr. for his regulatory knowledge.
"I like to view us as an all-purpose holistic approach." Mr. Bennett said. "That is why people come to us."
The firm has 180 of its 970 lawyers, at work on banking issues. The large number of banking lawyers gives it a broad personnel base to draw talent from for the fair-lending team. Mr. Bennett said.
Mr. Bennett concedes that his firm's services do not come cheap, although he declined to state how much a bank would pay.
"Yes, it is expensive," he said. "But, it would be expenvive if we charged $10 an hour because of the many hours tha go into this."
Karen Thomas, regulatory counsel to the Independent Bankers Association of America, agreed these cases are quite costly.
"I dont's think $1 million is out of sthe range at all for a big bank," Ms. Thomas said. That would include the cost of outside experts, as well as legal fees.
Skadden Arps attributes its success in the field to paying attention to everything the Justice Department is doing in the fairlending arena.
"You can't just tel lJustice to screw itself," Mr. Bennett said of his firm's osture toward the department. "You got to play both sides of the street."
The firm spends much of its efforts keep its clients out of the spotlight, the lawyers said.
"We try to keep their name out of the paper," Mr. Bennett said. "We try to keep the Justice Department from ever looking at them."
One way it keeps clients' names out of the paper is by reviewing a ban's fair-lending practices before the regulators enter the picture, Mr. Sandler said.
"The vast majority of our clients are very committed to fair lending," Mr;- Sandlet said. "They want to be on the cutting edge."
The firm has an advantage as the leader because it is dealing with the same people over and over.
"It is very, beneficial," Mr. Bennett said. "We know how they operate."
But not everyone agrees about the benefit of having these close relationships.
Kenneth Thomas, an author on community reinvestment issues, said he fears the firm's prominence gives it too much control over the development of fair-lending law.
"When you have one law firm in continuous negotiations with the Department of Justice, there is a danger there could be a tradeoff." Mr. Thomas said. "Are they truly independent in settlement questions? We don't know that."
Not all fair-lending experts, however, see a problem. Richard Ritter, a former federal prosecutor and now a consultant to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. said the firm should be applauded for garnering clients.
Mr. Sweet, not surprisingly, also takes exception to comments that his firm's prominence might hurt their clients.
"What we believe we have as an advantage is not that we are buddy-buddy with [federal fairlending prosecutor] Paul Hancock," Mr. Sweet said. "But he knows that when we say, we are going to do something, we are not bluffing."
While the Skadden Arps team has represented three of the six banks whose fair-lending woes have become public, it has yet to try one of these cases in court.
In fact, no law firm has yet tried one of these cases because all five banks named to date have settled.
And, bank number six, Barnett is in negotiations with Justice, although no decision on whether settle or fight has yet been made.
Mr. Bennett said Shawmut and Chevy Chase had 16 "rise above principle" and settle these claims because they feared regulators would halt their expansion efforts.
"You can't fight the Justice Department if it means they can't make any acquisitions during the next three years it takes to try the case," he said.
That hasn't happened in Barnett however. The Federal Reserve Board approved two Barnett acquisitions despite the probe.
This has given some banking advocates hope that the bank will fight the department. The Skadden Arps lawyers declined to discuss the case, other then to say that they are prepared for whatever happens.
Mr. Barnett said he expects the current wave of prosecution to last for another two year.