WASHINGTON -- In a confirmation of U.S. competitiveness in at least one sector of the economy, the nation's capital created an export in a single day that could reduce the trade deficit by $100 million or more over the next 12 months.
It consists of legal and lobbying services to be contracted by the 21 foreign countries and 47 foreign steel companies that must defend themselves against the trade complaints filed here Tuesday by struggling U.S. steel producers.
To avoid punitive customs duties of up to 165 percent on shipments to the United States, each company and each country has hired or plans to hire at least one Washington law firm.
The firms charge between $500,000 and $3 million for such jobs, and the average bill paid by a company or a government is likely to be about $1 million, lawyers said.
Add this to the $20 million war chest that the nation's six major steel companies have assembled to file and fight the cases, and the new trade war over steel imports, at roughly $120 million, is almost certain to be the most expensive ever fought.
These cases "dwarf anything that has come before," said Alan W. Wolff, the partner at Dewey Ballantine who filed the U.S. steel cases together with Robert E. Lighthizer, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Even $120 million might be a low estimate.
"I'd be surprised if it weren't over $100 million on the other side," Mr. Wolff said.
Dewey Ballantine and Skadden Arps together buried the Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission's dockets with 2 million pages of documents in 650 boxes Tuesday.
The work available for trade lawyers and lobbyists in fighting and filing trade complaints surged last year and again this year, after a low of 44 complaints were filed in 1990.
U.S. trade law makes it easier during a recession to persuade the ITC that an industry is in trouble and needs protection from imports.
The bonanza has spawned a feeding frenzy among Washington law firms, as lawyers idled by the slump in corporate mergers and acquisitions now gallop after foreign steel clients.
"This is a fat pig, and they all want a slice of it," Mr. Lighthizer said. "Every single person in town will be working on this, every single one."
When a dozen senators and representatives joined the nation's top steel executives for a news conference in the Capitol Tuesday to announce the 84 trade complaints against imported steel, they found themselves addressing a room filled with uninvited trade lawyers.
Eager for a list of the foreign steel companies being sued, the lawyers, who bill at rates of $100 or more an hour, had already grabbed many of the 150 press kits prepared by the steel companies' public relations firm, the Sawyer Miller Group.
Well-trained from long years of waiting outside congressional hearing rooms for seats, other lawyers and their aides stood two or three abreast in a line down the marble corridor and around the corner.
Defending against a trade complaint is lucrative because it requires thousands of hours of legal and economic analysis, as each company tries to prove that it does not receive illegal government subsidies and is not exporting steel at unfairly low prices.
Washington lawyers still without steel clients are busily devising strategies to woo them. Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferdon, which is already representing steel-pipe producers in Argentina in a trade case filed earlier this year, retained a public relations firm in an effort to have its lawyers quoted as experts.
David P. Houlihan, a partner at the firm, said that was easier than calling complete strangers and asking them for work.
"I just couldn't do that, the cold call," he said.
Other law firms are more brash. Sandra Wright, an international trade analyst at Donovan Leisure, Rogovin, Huge & Schiller, called a reporter two hours before the news conference Tuesday in search of an early list of foreign steel companies to call.