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When 57 of the 65 lawyers in Swidler Berlin’s New York office left to join Dechert last month, they validated one of the legal world’s worst-kept secrets: Swidler’s 1998 merger with Shereff Friedman Hoffman & Goodman had not gone according to plan. Few were surprised that the group — which consisted primarily of former Shereff Friedman lawyers — broke away. But their choice of Philadelphia-based Dechert stunned many. More surprising, the deal originated not with the Shereff group, but with Swidler’s eight-lawyer Washington, D.C.-based regulatory group, which also joined Dechert. The 1998 merger between Shereff Friedman and Swidler Berlin united firms with different strengths. Swidler, known as a regulatory firm, benefited from Shereff’s transactional and securities work, and got a New York presence. Shereff lawyers sought a national platform. Swidler’s profits grew, but the merger soured after several years. “There was a perception,” says Martin Nussbaum, a Shereff lawyer who left Swidler for Dechert, “that we were the outpost of a D.C. firm.” Swidler Managing Partner Barry Direnfeld recalls, “There was a mutual recognition that something had to be done.” So in 2003 Swidler began seeking a national merger. In May and November 2004, Swidler considered merging with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. The latter talks would have involved a split — with Swidler’s D.C. office going to Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky, and its New York office merging with Orrick. Both talks failed due to conflicts. As the firm’s future hung in the balance, Paul Denis, co-head of Swidler’s antitrust group, grew restless. “I wasn’t looking to leave, but as I started looking at the changes in the antitrust market, I realized that the firms that I was competing against had leads in size and scope,” he says. In early fall Dechert Managing Partner Barton Winokur pursued Denis’ group. “We had been looking for 20 years for someone like Paul Denis,” Winokur says. In November, Winokur turned his attention north. “When we saw the New York opportunity,” he says, “everything fit.” What happened to Orrick? A source familiar with the firms says she called an Orrick lawyer on Dec. 16 to congratulate him on the Swidler deal. The lawyer told her the hiring was not public, but would be soon. Two weeks later, both Swidler groups had joined Dechert. Orrick Managing Partner Ralph Baxter Jr. declined comment, but the firm issued a statement: “Orrick knows the lawyers at Swidler, New York well and was aware of their plans to move. But doing something together didn’t make sense for reasons including conflicts.” Helen Coster is a reporter with The American Lawyer, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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