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The Bingham McCutchen brand has never meant that much in Washington power circles. But its recent takeover of Swidler Berlin gives the Boston-based firm a prominent platform upon which to build its growing ambitions in the capital. The deal, which closed last week, almost triples Bingham’s D.C. head count, adding 115 Swidler lawyers to the firm’s 60-lawyer Washington shop. It also expands Bingham’s D.C. practice areas, from primarily Securities and Exchange Commission-related issues to telecommunications and lobbying. “It is as smooth a transition as one can have,” says Barry Direnfeld, Swidler’s former managing partner, of the merger, which has been in the works since October. Firm representatives say Direnfeld and Neal Sullivan, managing partner of Bingham’s Washington office, will act as co-managing partners of the combined D.C. office. Direnfeld and Swidler telecom guru Andrew Lipman will also occupy two new seats on Bingham’s now 18-partner firm committee, which functions as a board of directors. The merger did not include the Harbour Group, a wholly owned subsidiary that Swidler started in 2001. During the past five years the group has shared several lucrative lobbying clients with Swidler, including the Asbestos Study Group and the Major League Baseball Players Association. But Harbour now plans to focus solely on public relations. “It never was part of this deal,” says Bingham Chairman Jay Zimmerman. “The Harbour Group is a very strong group, but it really specializes in communications. . . . It was just not necessarily a fit or an area where we were strategically looking to grow.” Swidler partners Thurgood Marshall Jr. and Suzanne Spaulding became co-managing directors at the Harbour Group in early 2005 after Joel Johnson, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, left to start the Glover Park Group, taking with him $1.3 million in lobbying business and four of the Harbour Group’s midlevel lobbyists. After Johnson’s departure, Harbour struggled to attract and retain lobbying clients, relying mainly on Marshall’s clout to generate business. According to 2005 midyear numbers, the Harbour Group lost 10 lobbying clients after Johnson left and had only $160,000 in lobbying revenue. Of that, $80,000 came from one Swidler Berlin client, the Asbestos Study Group. “Our fundamental practice for the last 15 months has been the communications piece,” says Richard Marcus, managing director of the Harbour Group. “The lobbying thing was narrowly focused in terms of the work Thurgood [Marshall Jr.] was doing.” As part of the Bingham deal, Marshall and Spaulding left the Harbour Group to join Bingham’s consulting arm, which focuses mainly on political strategy at the state level. Direnfeld says the federal lobbying practice and Bingham’s state consulting practice will work together. “There is clearly opportunity where problems oftentimes are looked at the federal level as well as state level,” says Direnfeld. “[The merger] allows broader capacity to understand and hopefully react to in a proactive way.” The deal also ended up conflicting out two of Swidler’s most lucrative practice groups, which left the firm late last month. The 10-person bankruptcy group went to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, and the 12-person insurance group joined Heller Ehrman. Swidler’s two-partner merger arbitrage practice, which advises clients on potential merger risks, also opted not to join the combined firm. Robert Jacobs and Thomas Belles opened their own firm, Rock Creek Partners, last week. “It’s a great deal for the firm, a great transaction. We personally considered long and hard if we should go over,” says Jacobs, former chair of Swidler’s arbitrage practice. “There were some business conflicts, and [we] decided this practice can stand alone.” The merger ends the final chapter in Swidler’s tumultuous 24-year history. Formed in 1982 by Joseph Swidler and Edward Berlin, the firm hemorrhaged badly in the years after the tech bubble burst, going from 233 lawyers in 2001 to 171 lawyers in the District in 2004. Recently, the firm has been plagued by mass defections, most notably losing its entire New York office to Dechert in January 2005. That loss came after merger negotiations with Orrick stalled and the firm’s 14-lawyer energy group jumped to Alston & Bird. Despite opening a D.C. office in 1981, Bingham has remained a small-time player in Washington. In recent years the firm has focused on hiring laterally, adding SEC lawyers and a four-partner intellectual property group. The deal to get Swidler is in keeping with Bingham’s acquisition-based growth strategy under Zimmerman, who has engineered the takeover of six other firms since 1997. Zimmerman says he doesn’t expect to slow down anytime soon. “We plan on and need to grow in New York and expect some reasonable growth in London,” says Zimmerman, but adds that the Washington office is the firm’s top priority at the moment.
Anna Palmer can be contacted at [email protected].

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