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After three months of talks, Boston-based Ropes & Gray and New York intellectual property firm Fish & Neave have decided to join forces. The leaders of the two firms said Monday that they expect to merge around the end of the year. While 150-lawyer Fish & Neave will be absorbed into the 580-attorney Ropes & Gray, the Fish name will be used to designate Ropes & Gray’s intellectual property practice. The merger gives Fish & Neave the resources and clientele of a national firm while Ropes & Gray gains a premiere IP practice — multiplying its 40-lawyer IP group fivefold — and a strong foothold in Silicon Valley. Since opening in San Francisco three years ago, Ropes & Gray has had trouble recruiting partners. The San Francisco outpost now has 10 lawyers. “This gives us a wonderful critical mass in the Bay Area,” said Ropes & Gray Chairman R. Bradford Malt. He likened the effect to “a snowball rolling down a mountain.” Fish & Neave Managing Partner William McCabe said the merger would give Fish & Neave lawyers greater access to clients. “Fish & Neave tends to get hired for big, complex cases,” McCabe said. “We don’t tend to see clients for smaller or routine matters.” With the merger, Fish & Neave lawyers will get more exposure to general counsel working with Ropes & Gray on other matters. Malt said the two firms have worked together on cases in the past and talked of combining a number of years ago. Partners considered the idea again this past summer and recently began calling on clients together. Ropes & Gray’s eight-member policy committee, which acts like a board of directors, has approved the merger. Fish & Neave Chairman Jesse Jenner will be joining the committee after the merger. While Fish & Neave has not yet taken a vote of the partnership, McCabe said that with the exception of one or two partners who do not want to join the combination, there has been “overwhelming support” for the union. Malt said one of the primary issues in the discussions was preserving the brand name associated with Fish & Neave. To that end, the IP practice will be called the Fish & Neave IP practice of Ropes & Gray. Founded in 1895, Fish & Neave has boasted clients such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers. The firm has about 18 lawyers in its Palo Alto, Calif., office, 12 in its Washington, D.C., outpost and 119 at its headquarters in New York. Seventy percent of the firm is devoted to litigation, while the remainder handles prosecution, licensing and counseling. Fish & Neave joins a long line of IP firms that have shuttered or merged with general practice firms in the last three years. San Francisco’s Limbach & Limbach, Los Angeles-based Lyon & Lyon, San Jose’s Skjerven Morrill and New York’s Pennie & Edmonds are among the firms that have closed. Like these firms, Fish & Neave has had to struggle with ever greater competition from general practice firms for big-ticket litigation — and lawyers. The firm has lost at least a dozen partners in the last 20 months. “What we have been seeing in the marketplace is a lot of competition from general practice firms” that tend to focus on litigation, McCabe said. They tend to grow their staff “by absorbing IP boutiques or parts of boutiques or taking IP partners” from these shops. Recruiter Katharine Patterson, of Patterson Davis Consulting, said Fish & Neave may have been persuaded to pursue a merger after watching Lyon & Lyon and Pennie & Edmonds get absorbed into other firms and hearing how successful their lawyers have been. “Fish & Neave is a fabulous firm,” said Patterson, who isn’t involved in the merger. “This pulls them into the 21st century.” Fish & Neave had “buried its head in the sand” as the IP marketplace has diverged into two camps, she said, with “high-end litigation and counseling on one side and commoditized prosecution on the other side.” Consultant Peter Zeughauser of the Zeughauser Group said IP shops have difficulty competing with general practice firms for litigation since they “don’t have access to general counsel relationships.” Zeughauser, who isn’t involved in the merger, said joining with Ropes & Gray would allow Fish & Neave “to hold onto their remaining patent litigators, and Ropes & Gray would pick up an IP firm that historically has a good reputation.”

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