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After three months of talks, Boston-based Ropes & Gray and New York intellectual property firm Fish & Neave have decided to join forces. The leaders of the two firms announced in early November that they expected to merge by the end of the year. While 150-lawyer Fish & Neave will be absorbed into the 580-attorney Ropes & Gray, the highly regarded Fish name will be used to designate Ropes & Gray’s IP practice. The merger gives Fish & Neave the resources and clientele of a national firm while Ropes & Gray gains a premiere IP practice — multiplying its 40-lawyer IP group fivefold — and a strong foothold in Silicon Valley. Since opening in San Francisco three years ago, Ropes & Gray has had trouble recruiting partners. The San Francisco outpost now has 10 lawyers. “This gives us a wonderful critical mass in the Bay Area,” says R. Bradford Malt, Ropes and Gray’s chairman. He likened the effect to “a snowball rolling down a mountain.” William McCabe, Fish & Neave’s managing partner, says the merger would give lawyers at his firm greater access to clients. “Fish & Neave tends to get hired for big, complex cases,” says McCabe. “We don’t tend to see clients for smaller or routine matters.” With the merger, Fish & Neave lawyers will get more exposure to general counsel working with Ropes & Gray on other matters. Malt says the two firms have worked together on cases in the past and first talked about joining forces several years ago. Partners considered the idea again this past summer and recently began calling on clients together. Malt says one of the primary issues in the discussions was preserving the brand name associated with Fish & Neave. To that end, the IP practice will be called the Fish & Neave IP practice of Ropes & Gray. Founded in 1895, Fish & Neave has boasted clients such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers. The firm has about 18 lawyers in its Palo Alto office, 12 in its Washington, D.C., outpost and 119 at its headquarters in New York. Seventy percent of the firm is devoted to litigation, while the remainder handles prosecution, licensing and counseling. Fish & Neave joins a long line of IP firms that have shuttered or merged with general practice firms in recent years. San Francisco’s Limbach & Limbach, Los Angeles-based Lyon & Lyon, San Jose’s Skjerven Morrill and New York’s Pennie & Edmonds are among the firms that have closed. Like these firms, Fish & Neave has had to struggle with ever greater competition from general practice firms for big-ticket litigation — and lawyers. The firm has lost at least a dozen partners in the last 20 months. Meanwhile, two former Fish & Neave partners filed a lawsuit against the firm two days after it announced merger plans with Ropes & Gray. The suit, filed in New York City by W. Edward Bailey, who served as managing partner between 1994 and 2000, and Kevin Culligan, a former member of the firm’s management committee, claims they are owed $2.4 million in unreturned capital and unpaid compensation. Bailey and Culligan, both of whom are currently partners in the New York office of Atlanta’s King & Spalding, are also seeking to enjoin Fish & Neave from transferring disputed assets to Ropes & Gray until their matter is resolved. Such an injunction would not necessarily prevent the merger from proceeding, says Jeffrey Jannuzzo, who is representing the pair in the lawsuit against Fish & Neave. He says the firms could proceed as long as they set aside sufficient funds to cover his clients’ claims. “It is not our intention to derail their merger,” adds Jannuzzo. Bailey claims he is owed $565,436 in capital and $681,381 in income. Culligan claims he is due $291,215 in capital and $836,857 in income. Such disputes between former partners and their firms have become more common in recent years as firm mergers and partners’ lateral moves have become more frequent. Brenda Sandburg is a senior writer at The Recorder, where she covers developments in IP law. Anthony Lin is a reporter at the New York Law Journal.

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