Values

For This Antitrust Lawyer, It’s Only Natural to Both Practice Law and Make Gardens Grow

As an antitrust partner at V&E, Hill Wellford speaks eloquently on such topics as FTC enforcement policy, anti-competitive conduct, and “HSR” pre-merger filings. He is equally adept at discussing a much different subject: butterflies.

“I’m a butterfly evangelist,” Wellford said.

In fact, Wellford is enamored of all types of animals and plants, so much so that he has built a veritable temple to nature in his own front yard.

Anyone who has strolled past Wellford’s half-acre of land has seen the V&E partner’s sprawling “Bird, Bee and Butterfly” garden, a habitat cultivated for the purpose of providing food and shelter to animals. Started three years ago with some plants and seeds, today it is a lush native-plant garden filled with wildflowers, caterpillars, hummingbirds, and brightly colored butterflies.

While you might expect to see a garden like this in a rural setting, Wellford’s home is in Arlington, Va. — just across the Potomac River from the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. — in a neighborhood filled with houses and shops.

“Three years, on average, is how long it takes to have a mature butterfly garden,” Wellford said. “And sure enough, in its third year, this one is truly spectacular.”

Wellford, who along with fellow V&E antitrust partner Darren Tucker, joined the firm in February, focuses on advising clients on antitrust matters relating to the technology, pharmaceuticals, and energy industries. From 2004 to 2009, he held several staff and appointed positions at the Department of Justice, including serving as Chief of Staff at the DOJ’s Antitrust Division in Washington D.C.

Since joining V&E, Wellford has represented such clients as technology company Spredfast, Inc. in connection with its merger agreement with Lithium Technologies, LLC, and Flywheel Energy, LLC in its acquisition of Southwestern Energy Co.’s natural gas properties and affiliated midstream business in the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas.

Wellford recently sat down to discuss his legal practice, how he built his garden, and how immersing in nature can make you a better lawyer.

“If there is one thing that I hope clients say about the work that Darren Tucker and I do, it is that we are creative thinkers and problem solvers in a way that’s a little bit outside the ordinary.”

What led you to V&E?

V&E has always had a great antitrust practice, but earlier this year it was looking for some partners at our level to help expand the technology practice and also fill a succession hole. Darren Tucker and I were an exact fit as technologists with government antitrust experience, so it was really a marriage made in heaven.

I’ve been an antitrust and technology lawyer for my entire career. Happily for me, the whole world has become technology. V&E has a very large energy practice, for example, and there was a time when that wasn’t considered a technology practice, but those days are far behind us now.

Everything in the energy space is about trying to find ways to become more efficient. That’s being done with ever more complicated technologies, whether that means sideways drilling and compression gas lifts for different wells, or complicated ways of reading data to try to understand how old oil fields can become productive again. At the same time, our “pure” technology clients are getting involved in the energy space, whether that’s by buying renewable supply to power their servers or actually building solar capacity and working on battery tech. It’s an exciting time to do what we do.

Much of your practice involves advising technology, energy, and pharmaceutical clients on antitrust matters. What’s changing in that field?

Companies are increasingly facing the allegation — often incorrect, but passionately asserted — that by creating a new technology, they have immediately obtained a dominant position in the market, or even created a new market unto itself.

In the pharmaceutical space, for instance, the Federal Trade Commission takes the position that if you create a useful drug that has never existed before, you are a monopolist in a brand-new single-compound market.

A lot of people in the pharmaceutical industry think that position is flat-out insane, and that this penalizes the creation of new therapies. But right or wrong, that’s the way it can be treated in the United States, and very commonly all over the world.

We are seeing a similar claim spread to digital “platforms.” Everyone knows that platforms compete. For example, Windows, Apple and Chromebook laptops compete. These are “platforms” because consumers don’t just use the device, they use the programs and services that run on top of the device.

Similarly, consumers can choose between iPhones and Android.

The platform companies are fighting each other not only for customers, but also for the third-party app developers and people who make related devices and services, to maintain or expand what they call a platform’s “ecosystem.”

Some regulators are now trying to ignore this platform-level competition, and claim, essentially, that a company can be a “monopolist” in its own platform. The law in this area changes every day but at least it’s the furthest thing from boring!

Speaking of ecosystems, as busy as you are in your practice, you are passionate about nature. How did that start?

I was born into a farming family. We have a working farm in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay region.

The Kendale Farm in Essex County, Va., has about 2,500 acres of corn, soybeans, winter wheat and timber. We’re talking about eight- and 16-wheel tractors, not lawn toys. When you work on a tree farm, in particular, you learn a lot about nature.

My mother, Alice Wellford, still runs the farm, and has always been in the leadership of local and national environmental groups. She has a passion for preserving habitat. I learned on her knee from a young age.

Where did you get the idea to grow your own butterfly garden?

At a certain point, some of the smaller fields in the family farm had to be taken out of production since you can’t farm them efficiently with big modern machines. My mother decided to do an experiment and create a butterfly garden. She bought a couple hundred pounds of wildflower seed and plowed it into about 50 acres on the farm.

It worked beyond her wildest dreams. She created a butterfly meadow that is just a buzzing, crazy habitat of Lepidoptera, the Latin name for butterflies. Even more exciting is everything else that moved in, whether it’s small mammals or large birds, or literally hundreds of species of pollinators, including more than 70 species of bees alone.

When I bought and built a house in 2015, I wondered to myself, could I do this on the scale of 5,000 or 10,000 square feet in a suburban environment, and have it work just as well?

There’s really only one way to find out, which is to go dig up a whole bunch of plants and harvest a bunch of seeds in your mother’s massive butterfly garden, and plunk them down in front of your house and see what sticks. Sure enough, even in the first year, we had a terrific success with butterfly gardening. I’ve now got about 10,000 square feet of natural area on my property, ranging from sun to shade to rain garden, in different plots.

Last year, we hosted an Audubon Society event at the garden where about 130 people showed up. They were just amazed at the number of birds and the different insect life that we’ve been able to attract and sustain in the middle of suburban Arlington. It’s a little slice of wilderness.

What drives you to grow your butterfly garden?

It’s fulfilling to feel like you’re doing a little good in making the world just a slightly better, prettier, and healthier place.

If you have a healthy butterfly population then you can be sure that you’ve got healthy birds, healthy pollinators, trees that are functioning the way they should. And very likely, kids that are extremely happy because they have outdoor space to run around in and explore.

My wife Michelle and I have three boys, and they and their friends run riot through the garden, catching butterflies and whatnot. It’s all native plants, which are tough, so they can take the foot traffic.

There are probably 200 people who walk their dogs or take their kids to the bus stop, right past my butterfly garden on a given day, and every one of those people is a potential convert to being a naturalist. I’ve put up signs that explain the nature in the garden. I see people reading them and looking up information on their phones. It makes my day.

In what way does your devotion to nature make you a better lawyer?

Lawyers, especially those in government-enforcement practices, are dealing with life and death decisions for companies, and sometimes with possible prison time for executives. These are high-pressure environments.

It’s very important for lawyers to have an outlet that gets them as far away as possible from their day jobs and allows their brains to reset.

It makes you a much more creative person. If there is one thing that I hope clients say about the work that Darren Tucker and I do, it is that we are creative thinkers and problem solvers in a way that’s a little bit outside the ordinary.

I like to take time out from the law firm world for an afternoon in the garden. When I do, of course, I’m still using my antitrust brain. So, I’ve got all my butterfly plants logged into a spreadsheet on Google Drive. Even the other butterfly nuts think I’m a nerd. I can’t help it, it’s just what antitrust people do!

To learn more about Hill Wellford’s “Bird, Bee, Butterfly” garden and how you can create your own, click www.bit.ly/bbbgarden.