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The three-year-old merger of Wilmer Cutler & Pickering and Hale and Dorr is showing some signs of wear and tear. In the last six months, WilmerHale has pulled the plug on its Munich practice, closed its Oxford, England, office, and lost four U.K. partners and a team of associates from the heart of its London corporate practice, who left to launch Heller Ehrman’s office in that city. For the firm, the problems in Europe shouldn’t be a surprise. Not only has the cultural fit in Europe been a problem since the firms merged in 2004, but the divide was foreseen in a memo written in the summer of 2006 by Washington, D.C., partner Gerry Cater. In the memo, Cater took stock of the firm’s European prospects. The picture he saw was not pretty. The memo recounted stories of an uneasy cultural fit between the two legacy firms. It questioned the legacy Hale and Dorr partners’ contribution to the office, and criticized U.K. corporate head Richard Eaton’s style of leadership. Cater’s recommendations: The firm should shift its focus away from the high-tech clients and start-ups that those partners had brought with them. Instead, more time should be spent winning work from Wilmer’s stable of major corporations, such as Citigroup Inc., for whom Cater had just closed a major deal, and Danaher Corp. A partner in the office accidentally picked up the memo from a printer and gave it to Eaton. He railed against many of its points. Others in the office took his side, seeing the memo as character assassination. And although it had been written for senior European partner and management board member Dieter Lange, the firm’s D.C. management was not pleased. Cater, who had spent time in the London office before returning to the United States at the end of 2005, was raked over the coals for the attack, according to one former Wilmer lawyer. (WilmerHale co-managing partners William Lee and William Perlstein both deny any knowledge of the memo.) Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and Hale and Dorr were always an odd cultural fit in London. Wilmer was conservative, while Hale and Dorr encouraged more of a work-hard, play-hard culture. At the London office’s first postmerger Christmas party at the Savoy Hotel in December 2004, a fistfight broke out between two legacy Hale and Dorr partners, which prompted one legacy Wilmer partner to ask a colleague, “What have we merged with?” The answer was the legacy operation of Brobeck Hale and Dorr, the U.K. joint venture between the Boston firm and Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison. The practice was mostly corporate work for relatively new technology companies, such as Bookham, Wolfson Microelectronics, and Autonomy Corp. In contrast, the legacy Wilmer practice focused on arbitration and regulation, and included clients such as German airline Deutsche Lufthansa and BP. Despite this impressive client roster, the merged firm had trouble growing in London. Apart from the big-billing arbitration practice, no attorneys have been made partner since the merger went live. Lee tries to put a positive spin on the Heller raid. “Both groups are likely to be more successful moving forward separately,” he says. Perlstein adds that, despite the exits, there is no split within the firm. But much of the legacy Hale and Dorr firm is now gone. And although Perlstein stresses the firm’s commitment to rebuilding the corporate practice, currently the firm in Europe has a distinctly Washington feel to it, with strengths in arbitration and competition. Cater’s vision was to do more deals for clients like Citigroup. WilmerHale has some work to do before that vision is realized.
Richard Lloyd is a reporter with The American Lawyer , an ALM publication where a version of this article first appeared.

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