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The race to become Boston’s first law firm to reach 500 lawyers may already be over. Boston’s Goodwin, Procter & Hoar, with the acquisition in May of a 27-lawyer New Jersey firm, has positioned itself as the largest law firm in New England, with 450 lawyers. With its incoming class of first-year associates pegged at 52 for this fall, Goodwin Procter would become the first law firm with New England roots to reach 500 lawyers. The firm isn’t planning to uncork the champagne or trumpet its size anytime soon, says its managing partner, Regina M. Pisa. “Actually, what I think will happen is that we’ll keep it in-house,” says Pisa. “I don’t think we’ve even had size as an actual growth objective. To us, size reflects the breadth and depth of our practice. And if we have to get that breadth and depth through growing our size, that’s great.” Size matters — and doesn’t. When you’re growing your law firm into a contender nationwide, reaching 500 might make you the biggest in your neighborhood, but it only puts you in the top 50 nationally. “A 500-lawyer firm is pretty big, though I don’t normally focus on size as being too important,” says William G. Johnston, a consultant for New Jersey-based Hildebrandt International. “I don’t recall a client ever referring to a size milestone. “What really can happen is that they can go after a 50-lawyer firm and combine with that firm in ways that a 35-lawyer firm in Boston can’t. They have different opportunities than a smaller firm has.” Bingham Dana is another Boston-based firm approaching the 500 mark, although its officials say they don’t expect to hit that number in the next year. Even if they did, they say, the number itself is not as newsworthy as the depth of legal expertise that it should reflect. DOESN’T MATTER MUCH “Size, in and of itself, doesn’t matter beyond a certain point,” says Jay Zimmerman, managing partner of 426-lawyer Bingham. “You’re trying to achieve the right critical mass of the right people. Any firm in Boston could be a lot larger tomorrow if they do a big deal.” William F. Lee, managing partner of Boston’s Hale and Dorr, agreed that size doesn’t matter, except that it can be illustrative of depth in certain practice areas. “I think when you get up to 300-plus, it’s not how many you are, it’s who you are,” says Lee. “There are some firms that practice in Boston that are 700, and all five top Boston firms are better positioned than they are.” In the 1980s, law firms burgeoned and ballooned and then — in the case of firms like Gaston & Snow — exploded from the growing pains. Law firm officials who watched the mid-’80s boom turn into a late-’80s bust say that the industry’s growth this time is different. “We’ve never been proponents of growth for growth’s sake,” says Lee. “We hit 400, and it just sort of passed.” OK, SORT OF MATTERS Whatever the firms say, 500 lawyers still is a noteworthy level, some observers say. “It would be good for pure bragging rights,” says Neville Blakemore, a consultant at the Law Firm Development Group, in Dedham, Mass. “And it would be unwritten bragging rights, the intangible bragging rights of being 500,” says Blakemore. “Nobody would trumpet the fact that ‘we’re 500,’ because, when you look at consulting and professional-services firms worldwide, 500 is insignificant. It’s the size of a division.” Hildebrandt’s Johnston says who will reach 500 lawyers first is not as interesting as how big Boston’s firms are growing and where they are growing. In the case of the city’s largest law firms, all of them but Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault are adding lawyers in cities other than Boston. “If you look at the dynamics of the Boston market, the largest firms are expanding outside of the city. The question is, what are they doing with their size?” Johnston says.

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