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In a move that seems certain to raise further doubts about the viability of stand-alone intellectual property law firms, the New York IP boutique Fish & Neave has agreed to merge with Ropes & Gray, a large Boston firm. Fish & Neave, which has about 160 lawyers in New York, Palo Alto, Calif., and Washington, D.C., is one of the nation’s largest IP boutiques. It is also one of the oldest, having represented clients including Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers since its founding in 1878. The merger, which is to become effective Jan. 1, will increase Ropes & Gray’s New York office to more than 200 lawyers from around 80. The combined firm, which will operate as Ropes & Gray, will have more than 750 lawyers nationwide. Unusually, the firm will retain the Fish & Neave name for its firmwide IP practice group. “We think the Fish & Neave name is the greatest brand in the IP area of the law in the nation, if not the world,” said Ropes & Gray Chairman R. Bradford Malt. Malt said the move fit with the firm’s strategy of bolstering its core capabilities as it expands nationwide. Last spring, Ropes & Gray, which is known for its Boston-based private equity practice, boosted its New York office with the acquisition of 55-lawyer private equity boutique Reboul, MacMurray, Hewitt & Maynard. “We feel it’s a better strategy than being one out of a hundred firms, which we might be if we expanded in a random practice group,” said Malt. Boston firms have been particularly active merger participants of late. In May, Hale and Dorr, the longtime Boston rival of Ropes & Gray, merged with Washington’s Wilmer Cutler Pickering to form the 1,000-lawyer firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. Fish & Neave Chairman Jesse J. Jenner said his partners’ decision to merge came after considerable debate over the future of stand-alone IP firms. He said he and others felt that trends in the legal industry increasingly favored large, general practice firms. In particular, he said, general practice firms can build stronger relationships with general counsels by working with them on a wide variety of matters and transactions. “It will be increasingly difficult for stand-alone firms to compete for the attention of corporate counsel,” he said. But Jenner said some of his partners had argued for the firm’s continued independence. He said he was still unsure if all partners would join the merger, though he said the vast majority were expected to participate. IP boutiques nationwide have been under pressure from large general practice firms eager to expand into what they perceive to be a lucrative area. Fish & Neave itself has lost a number of partners in recent months to firms including Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Atlanta’s King & Spalding; Latham & Watkins; and Los Angeles’ Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges. Aside from their greater access to general counsel and other high-ranking in-house lawyers, general practice firms usually have higher profits, enabling them to more handsomely compensate star IP partners. Outside of New York, IP firms like Silicon Valley’s Skjerven Morrill and Los Angeles’ Lyon & Lyon have also closed their doors. The merger agreement between Ropes & Gray and Fish & Neave follows last year’s closing of New York’s Pennie & Edmonds, another large and established IP boutique. Most of the lawyers from Pennie & Edmonds joined the New York office of Jones Day. Pennie & Edmonds had also previously been beset by departures of partners to general practice firms. Jenner said Fish & Neave partners had been discussing the outlook for IP boutiques at the time of Pennie & Edmonds’ closing. But he said events at that firm likely had an impact on the thinking of many Fish & Neave partners. New York still counts a number of IP boutiques, though only Kenyon & Kenyon and Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto are of similar size to Fish & Neave or Pennie & Edmonds.

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