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Partners at pioneering international law firm Coudert Brothers have voted to let the firm break up after failing to reach a merger agreement with another firm. “After exploring various options, the partners of Coudert have authorized the Firm to enter into combinations of offices and practice groups with other firms to reflect the strengths of the Firm,” New York-based Coudert Brothers said in a statement issued on Aug. 18. “Such combinations will be done in an orderly process and announced over the next several weeks.” Sources familiar with the situation said the announcement indicated that recent merger discussions with Baker & McKenzie had failed to produce an agreement, though it remained possible that individual offices or groups of partners would join Baker & McKenzie. Neither Coudert nor Baker & McKenzie would comment on those discussions. Coudert’s announcement signals the likely dissolution in the coming weeks of one of the nation’s oldest and most respected firms. But the news also comes as little surprise within the legal community. Though a growing number of departures in recent months has fueled expectations of an imminent collapse, the decline of Coudert has been evident for several years. “It’s not a shock, but it is a real sad day,” said Philippe Bennett, the firm’s former intellectual property chairman, who left last year to join the New York office of Atlanta-based Alston & Bird. Ward Bower, a principal at law firm consultancy Altman Weil, noted that Coudert Brothers would be the latest in a string of major firm collapses in recent years, following San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, Chicago’s Altheimer & Gray and Boston’s Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault. “It’s reflective of how volatile the market is these days and how vulnerable firms are,” he said. Though founded in New York in 1853, Coudert has long been known primarily for its overseas presence. The firm had an office in Paris in 1879 and recently celebrated 25 years in China, a market that most U.S. firms are only just beginning to explore. At its height, the firm had 28 offices worldwide. It now has 21 offices, 17 overseas. But Coudert’s early lead in international practice has been steadily eroded over the past decade or so by the expansion abroad of other firms in both the United States and Britain. Its roster of about 600 lawyers worldwide is now dwarfed by those of global behemoths such as 3,000-lawyer Clifford Chance or 1,900-lawyer White & Case. Bower pointed out that those other firms typically expanded overseas from a position of strength, with a strong profit base in New York or London. In contrast, Coudert failed to build strong domestic core practices to feed its global network. Bennett said the firm faced a crossroads in the late 1990s when it realized that its niche, international law, was under attack by a multitude of new competitors. He said the firm could have decided then to focus on building domestic practices, possibly focusing on the New York metropolitan area or the Northeast Corridor, while also maintaining its strongest practices in Paris, Moscow, London and Beijing.

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