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In the seemingly endless push into the New Jersey legal market by cross-border players, the next acquisition by an out-of-state firm could well come by month’s end. Harris Beach, of Rochester, N.Y., is poised to close on a northern New Jersey firm by Nov. 1. The target firm is likely to be 23-lawyer Winne, Banta, Hetherington & Basralian in Hackensack. Six sources familiar with the firm say Winne Banta is in play. Managing partner Joseph Basralian declines to comment, saying only that the firm has been approached by many firms, of varying sizes, in the past 15 years. Allen Molnar, who heads Harris Beach’s Newark office, says final negotiations are underway. He won’t identify the potential pick-up, but says it’s a 20-lawyer firm whose partners have visited the Rochester headquarters. Harris Beach has a total of 190 lawyers in 10 offices, primarily in New York state, and relationships with affiliate firms in San Francisco and Toronto. It opened a branch in Hackensack in early 1997 and moved in 2000 to Newark, where it now has five lawyers. Harris Beach managing partner Gunther Buerman said in July that the firm is eager to expand in northern New Jersey, which he considers part of the New York metropolitan market. The key opportunities are in complex litigation, real estate, health care and corporate, particularly financial institutions, he says. He added that he has been “talking to firms and groups” in the state, while the head of the Newark branch, Molnar, said at the time that active discussions with an 18-lawyer firm could lead to a second Harris Beach office in New Jersey. Gunther did not return a call seeking comment last week. The six lawyers who say Winne Banta is shopping itself have some familiarity with the firm. Three say Winne Banta has been in discussions with a big firm, adding they believe the firm has been struggling of late. Basralian disputes that, saying 2002 “was not a bad year” to date. Two sources say that talks were held last fall between Winne Banta and 55-lawyer Waters McPherson McNeill in Secaucus. Managing partner John McNeill did not return a call seeking comment. Winne Banta, which celebrated its 80th anniversary last February, has also talked to several other firms that are about the same size or smaller, including at least two in Bergen County, these sources say. Harris Beach and Winne Banta share a common client, Fleet Bank. Winne Banta has done work for the bank for decades, through its permutations from People’s Bank to United Jersey Bank to Summit Bank, which merged into Fleet. MUTUAL SUPPORT If Winne Banta merged into Harris Beach, it would come at a time when both firms are suffering defections and could use a shoring up. Winne Banta has lost three partners and three associates in the past year, depleting the firm by a quarter. Senior partner Joseph Rizzi, a name partner and first on the letterhead, left in June for Montvale’s Beattie Padovano. He was at Winne Banta 38 years and was the first name added to the door after founders Walter Winne and Bruce Banta. Leaving with Rizzi was the work of the Bergen County Improvement Authority, where Rizzi is general counsel. One source familiar with Rizzi’s practice says his book of business is about $750,000. Rizzi declines to comment; he says the parting was amicable and that he left for a good opportunity. Partner Donald Klein, who was fourth on the letterhead, left almost a year ago. He took with him the work from Munich Reinsurance Co., which has been ensnared in litigation involving the liquidation of Integrity Insurance Co. Integrity’s liquidator sued the German company over excess and umbrella coverage written by Munich. Klein accepted an offer to help get the fledgling New York branch of Chicago’s Schiff Hardin & Waite off the ground. He moved after his co-counsel on the Munich file, David Spector, had switched from another Chicago firm to Schiff Hardin, and after Schiff Hardin decided to stop farming out the New Jersey portion of the litigation. Spector is a top reinsurance litigator. Klein also used to handle some of the media law work for The Record of Hackensack, though some of that work now goes to Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll of Philadelphia. Winne Banta is well known for its First Amendment work, particularly through partner Peter Banta, son of the co-founder. The third departing partner, Thomas Monahan Jr., left last April, taking associate Khoren Bandazian II and opening Bandazian & Monahan in Englewood Cliffs. Bandazian handles real estate matters while Monahan is a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer who also practices family law. Basralian points out that the firm has restocked to a point, bringing in lateral partner Edward D’Alessio from Fairfield’s D’Alessio & Kugleman, and four new associates. HARRIS BEACH HURTING IN N.Y. Harris Beach, too, has suffered defections. Four of the original five Harris Beach lawyers in Hackensack, including two partners, departed by 2000. Those partners and an associate moved to the Princeton branch of Pittsburgh’s Buchanan Ingersoll. In August, the eight-lawyer health care group walked out for the Manhattan office of Washington, D.C.’s Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn. The group, headed by partner Michael Blass, includes four partners and six lawyers who do tranactional work. An Arent Fox managing partner in New York says Blass headed Harris Beach’s business transaction practice group, which concentrates on servicing health-care industry clients. Two defectors, partner Joshua Dicker and of counsel Jill Cohen Steinberg, were listed as working out of New York and Newark. Though it has been bringing in lateral partners and groups aggressively in recent years, defections have left Harris Beach not much larger than it was in 1997. According to The National Law Journal‘s annual survey of the nation’s 250 largest firms, Harris, Beach & Wilcox, as it was known then, had 186 lawyers in late 1997, growing to 212 by the end of 2001 after dipping to 172 in 1998. The surveys by the newspaper, a sister publication to the New Jersey Law Journal, shows that Harris Beach was 183rd in size in 2001, 10 spots lower than four years earlier. One lawyer familiar with Harris Beach merger activity says the firm loses partners in part because it functions more like a confederation of branches and groups, failing to capitalize on the synergies of size that has been driving the consolidation of the industry. Whatever firm Harris Beach is close to partnering with, the matchmaking of national and regional firms with New Jersey groups and firms seems endless in spite of, or perhaps because of, the economic slowdown. As one Bergen County lawyer says of the landscape in North Jersey, “You either have to become monolithic or become a very good specialist.”

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