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Wilmer Cutler Pickering and Boston’s Hale and Dorr are nearing a partnership vote on merging, according to a source close to the discussions. If approved, the merger would instantly create a 1,000-lawyer behemoth that would rank as one of the 10 largest firms in the country. The combined firm would have offices throughout Europe, as well as a New York presence of about 90 lawyers. In Washington, D.C., Wilmer has 350 lawyers to Hale and Dorr’s 70. A vote on the merger is expected this week or next, the source says. Law firm consultants and D.C.-area lawyers expressed surprise at the advanced state of the discussions, and the possibility of a merger between a Washington institution and an old-line Boston corporate firm. “The management doesn’t bring things like this to the partnership if they don’t think they will go through,” says law firm consultant Peter Zeughauser. Wilmer Chairman William Perlstein cited the firm’s policy not to comment publicly on speculation about the firm. Hale and Dorr managing partner William Lee did not return calls for comment, though in an interview last week with The Boston Globe he acknowledged the firms were in discussions. Law firm consultants say the marriage makes sense on the surface. The two firms are about equal in size and have similar cultures. Profits per partner are close: In 2002, Wilmer Cutler posted an average $759,000 profits per equity partner, while Hale and Dorr’s PPP was $810,000. Hale and Dorr, however, has multiple partnership tiers while Wilmer Cutler has only equity partners, which might complicate efforts to integrate. In 2002, the firms grossed a combined $603 million, split roughly evenly. Zeughauser questioned the strategy of beefing up in Washington and Boston instead of courting merger partners on the West Coast or in New York to create a national presence. “It’s a kind of Northeast or Mid-Atlantic states deal,” he says. But Zeughauser says the firms’ practices complement each other: Wilmer has strong litigation and regulatory practices, and one of the city’s biggest rainmakers, securities lawyer William McLucas. (McLucas declined comment.) Hale and Dorr has top intellectual property and corporate practices. David Wilkins, head of Harvard Law School’s Program on Lawyers and the Professional Services Industry, says the firms have similar old-line, prestigious cultures. “If they have to grow and merge to stay competitive, at least you have firms with similar values,” he says. “What this shows is the pressure that even quite well-established, excellent firms feel to get bigger and to have more coverage.”

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