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Wilmer Cutler Pickering’s merger with Boston’s Hale and Dorr has lawyers buzzing about the possibility of a string of similar unions involving D.C. firms. Law firm managers and consultants agree the merger is momentous. They don’t agree, however, on whether it is the first in a wave of similar combinations or an isolated event. “This is a big deal. Whether other firms will follow, I really can’t predict,” says Stephen Nelson, a consultant at Fredericksburg, Va.-based McCormick Group. “Right now, I think people are scratching their heads.” The D.C. market, of course, is no stranger to law firm unions. It has been a prime target market for expansion — second only to New York — for the past several years, says James Jones, a consultant and shareholder at Hildebrandt International, a consulting firm based in New Jersey. From 1996 to July 2003, there have been 38 mergers involving D.C.-area firms, says Jones. “Most of the large Washington firms have been pretty active in expanding already,” says Jones. Among the biggest pairings were McKenna & Cuneo with Atlanta’s Long Aldridge & Norman to form McKenna Long Aldridge in 2002; Howrey & Simon with Arnold, White & Durkee in 2000 to form Howrey Simon Arnold & White; and Baltimore’s Piper Marbury with Rudnick & Wolfe to form Piper Rudnick. Piper merged again in 2002 with D.C.’s Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, a firm well-known for its lobbying practice. In 2003, D.C.’s Shaw Pittman and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld were discussing a merger, but broke off talks. Combined, they would have created a firm with more than 1,200 lawyers. “It’s possible for big firms to merge,” Akin Gump Chairman R. Bruce McLean said in October after talks broke down. “But the number of issues you have to deal with is daunting, to say the least. It’s a very big long shot.” At the time, Shaw Pittman said it wasn’t closing the door to a merger with another firm. Shaw Pittman managing partner Stephen Huttler was unavailable for comment. D.C.’s Shea & Gardner has also been in merger discussions, sources say. Among the possible suitors, they say, is San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster. MoFo Chairman Keith Wetmore says the firm does not comment on negotiations until they are complete. “We have lots of conversations with lots of firms,” he says. Shea & Gardner managing partner John Aldock declined to comment. Consultants also hold out the possibility of one — or more — big mergers involving D.C.-area firms in the coming months. Peter Zeughauser of the Newport Beach, Calif.-based Zeughauser Group says, “There’s more than one on the horizon, I can tell you that.” He declined to name specific firms. Another consultant familiar with the market concurs: “I strongly expect there will be a couple more significant combinations here.” And the Wilmer-Hale merger is likely to make other players re-examine their expansion strategies, consultants say. The combination introduces another 1,000-plus-lawyers firm to the D.C. area. “Other players … are now all of a sudden dwarfed,” says William Brennan, an Altman Weil consultant. When the merger takes effect May 31, Wilmer will be significantly larger than D.C.-based firms like Howrey Simon, Covington & Burling, and Arnold & Porter. The merger “is a landscape-changing event,” says a law firm consultant who chose to remain anonymous. Similar firms will be thinking, “‘If they can do it, then maybe we can do it.’” A partner in management at one of the 20 highest-grossing D.C.-based firms says the Wilmer-Hale merger will probably spur conversations among other managing partners. This managing partner says that a merger is not part of his firm’s plan. But if he were approached by a firm that might be a good fit with his, he would talk to them. “It would be the responsible thing to do,” he says. Mitchell Dolin, a partner and spokesman at Covington, however, says he does not see this union leading to “merger mania” in the D.C. market. Covington itself has shied away from mergers. Dolin says the only merger in its history came in 1999 when it acquired New York’s 70-lawyer Howard, Smith & Levin. Even if the Wilmer-Hale union doesn’t spark a rush of mergers, the D.C. market remains an attractive destination, consultants and law firm managers say. Regulatory, antitrust and lobbying work are still the main draws, but the area is “increasingly becoming a significant market outside of its traditional role … as a Washington practice,” Zeughauser says. Firms “also look at it as a good legal market because of growing businesses around D.C.,” says Nestor Nicholas, Boston-based co-managing partner of Nixon Peabody. And Washington’s role as the center of political power continues to appeal to firms. Ben Johnson, managing partner of Atlanta’s Alston & Bird — itself with a rapidly expanding D.C. office — says one of the ways to demonstrate that a firm is truly national “is to be present in the political capital [D.C.] and financial capital [New York] of the country.”

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