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Swidler Berlin is losing some wattage. Last week, 14 energy attorneys announced they were leaving for 650-lawyer Alston &Bird. The group is led by one of Swidler’s founding partners, Steven Agresta, and Kenneth Jaffe. Along with four other partners, they’ll depart with two sizable utility clients: National Grid USA and California Independent System Operator Corp. Alston & Bird’s D.C. managing partner Frank Conner says the firm is “thrilled” with the acquisition, particularly since the recently passed energy bill is expected to spur investment in that sector. The move is a significant blow to Swidler: Not only do the departing attorneys account for roughly 10 percent of the lawyers at the firm, but they leave Swidler with just a single energy regulatory partner. That’s a remarkable development for a firm that was founded in 1982 as an energy boutique by Joseph Swidler, now deceased, and Edward Berlin, two former chairmen of the Federal Power Commission. Agresta says the decision to move was spurred by the desire to be part of a larger firm, and had nothing to do with Swidler’s performance or management. “We thought that we had some very good business opportunities at Alston & Bird,” he says. But three sources with knowledge of the firm suggest the energy practice’s waning clout in firm management played a role, particularly since the retirement of Edward Berlin as firm chairman in 2002. “I think they have felt that they have been treated as stepchildren for quite a while,” says one former partner, who asked not to be named. That was evidenced last fall when Swidler’s management entered into merger discussions with Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky, even though the energy practice had significant client conflicts with Dickstein’s energy group. In the months since the talks were aborted, Swidler has struggled to retain partners, losing its entire New York office to Dechert, as well as key antitrust, white-collar crime, and intellectual property lawyers in the District. Swidler managing partner Barry Direnfeld did not return calls. A firm spokeswoman issued a written statement saying that the firm “will maintain a strong presence in the energy industry,” and that notwithstanding the departure, the 130-attorney firm expects “to maintain both our high standards of service to clients and our high level of profitability.”
Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected].

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