More Firms Launch Unmanned Aircraft Practices: Business of Law

There’s definitely something in the air.

Several firms -- including Morrison & Foerster, Hogan Lovells LLP, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, Holland & Knight LLP, and most recently Hunton & Williams LLP -- have created practice groups focusing on unmanned aircraft systems, known as UAS. The firms are focusing on what’s known in common parlance as drones.

Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP was the first to start a specialized practice because of special counsel Brendan Schulman’s representation of Raphael Pirker, a hobbyist who is battling with the Federal Aviation Administration over the use of a drone near the University of Virginia.

Lawyers at these firms say they are responding to their clients’ needs, often arising from the lack of regulatory clarity in the airspace for a UAS. Currently, “hobbyists are free to operate a UAS so long as they’re not doing it for compensation,” said Kenneth Quinn, a Pillsbury partner. Commercial uses face a blanket proscription, with the FAA now considering petitions for exemptions from the general ban.

It’s yet another instance of technology outpacing the underlying regulatory framework. The result is an uptick in legal work.

Pirker, for example, was initially fined for his drone operation, but an administrative law judge overturned the decision. The FAA has appealed the ruling to the National Transportation Safety Board, and the parties are awaiting a ruling, Schulman said yesterday in an e-mail.

The practices are often multidisciplinary. At Morrison & Foerster, for example, the group brings together lawyers who specialize in aviation, environmental, product-liability, privacy, corporate and patent law.

Partner William O’Connor said Morrison & Foerster is actively seeking an exemption for one of its clients, but is also drafting petitions for exemptions for several other clients, including one who “has a significant amount of land that needs monitoring, and another that is an energy company.”

Holland & Knight’s “drone practice team” represented a coalition of news organizations urging the National Transportation Safety Board in the Pirker case to find that the First Amendment protects newsgathering by unmanned aircraft.

Just yesterday, Hunton & Williams announced the formation of a multidisciplinary “unmanned aircraft systems integration unit.”

In describing their work, lawyers typically shy from employing the “drone” nomenclature. As Ted Ellett, a partner at Hogan Lovells who chairs that firm’s practice said, “drone has a particular connotation that means either a military operation or a means to conduct surveillance.”

In contrast, civil applications, like those proposed by his clients, are very different and shouldn’t raise military concerns or questions of invading privacy, Ellett, a former chief counsel of the FAA, said.


Wachtell, Sullivan & Cromwell Advise on BB&T-Susquehanna Deal

Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz represented BB&T Corp., North Carolina’s second-largest lender, in its purchase of Susquehanna Bancshares Inc. Sullivan & Cromwell LLP represented Susquehanna in the deal valued at approximately $2.5 billion.

From Wachtell were partners Matthew Guest, corporate; Richard Kim, bank regulatory; David Neill, antitrust, David Kahan, executive compensation and benefits; and Joshua Holmes, tax.

The Sullivan & Cromwell team representing Susquehanna included partners H. Rodgin Cohen, C. Andrew Gerlach, Mitchell Eitel and Marc Trevino, all corporate, and Ronald Creamer Jr., tax.

Under the terms of the deal, shareholders of Lititz, Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna will receive 0.253 share of BB&T common stock and $4.05 in cash for each share, BB&T said yesterday in a statement.

Bank deals, which dropped off amid stricter regulations brought on by the financial crisis, are picking up again in the U.S. In July, commercial lender CIT Group Inc. agreed to buy OneWest Bank from parent IMB Holdco LLC for $3.4 billion. Regional lenders including U.S. Bancorp and Huntington Bancshares Inc. are shopping for pieces of bigger rivals as companies such as Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp. seek to exit regions and businesses.

BB&T has been scooping up branches from competitors and seeking acquisitions as King pushes into new regions. The Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based firm said in September it planned to buy Bank of Kentucky Financial Corp. for $363 million, a week after agreeing to acquire 41 Texas branches from Citigroup Inc.

For more on the deal, click here.

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