John Gregg
John Gregg ()

McCarter & English, New Jersey’s largest firm, has expanded its East Coast footprint by opening shop in the nation’s capital.

Effective Feb. 1, the firm acquired 14-lawyer Miller, Balis & O’Neil in Washington, D.C., which represents energy industry clients in regulatory, transactional, government relations and appellate litigation matters.

The move gives Newark-based McCarter its eighth office, nearly doubles its Environment & Energy practice and pushes firmwide ranks to around 400.

Miller Balis’ former managing partner, John Gregg, now heads McCarter’s D.C. office.

Joining McCarter as partners are Michael Adragna, Sean Beeny, James Byrd, James Choukas-Bradley, Randolph Elliott, Joshua Menter, William Miller and Robert O’Neil.

Coming on as special counsel are Barry Cohen, Denise Goulet and Phyllis Kimmel, and as associates, Kevin Conoscenti and Jeffrey Janicke. All retain the same rank except Kimmel, who was a Miller Balis partner. A dozen staff also have made the move.

McCarter managing partner Stephen Vajtay Jr. says the acquisition fulfills “long-standing plans to expand our Environment & Energy practice with regulatory lawyers” and “very aggressive and ambitious D.C. growth aspirations.”

McCarter lawyers had been handling matters, including environmental remediation, for D.C. energy clients, but had no toehold there and lacked regulatory services, Vajtay adds.

McCarter takes Miller Balis’ office on 15th Street, N.W., which has room for seven more lawyers and is surrounded by additional available office space in the same and adjacent buildings.

The firm plans to fill those offices in the coming months with regulatory lawyers in various practice areas—pickups it has been eyeing.

Vajtay foresees energy as one of three practice areas that are certain to remain in growth mode for years to come—the other two being health care and intellectual property.

Since forming in 1980, Miller Balis developed a niche of representing regional and municipal energy clients in states further west—where, unlike the East Coast, power typically isn’t provided by massive utility companies.

Over time, Miller Balis added transactional work, which as of Feb. 1 accounted for more than half of the firm’s business.

Gregg says Miller Balis, despite changing its brand, has a very loyal client base. “It’s more than just a name, it’s a personal relationship to them,” he says.

Clients include the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, the nation’s largest municipal utility; the Arkansas Electric Energy Cooperative, which serves most of the state; and the Tennessee Energy Acquisition Corp.

The firm advises them on purchasing energy contracts, building generator plants and other transactions.

The merger will allow Miller Balis to cross-sell services it used to farm out, services like tax and real estate work. The firm had not referred work to McCarter until deal discussions began a little more than a year ago.

Miller Balis charged hourly rates ranging from the mid-$400s to the mid-$600s, and the two firms’ financial metrics are comparable, Vajtay says.

The Law Journal’s most recent survey of top-grossing firms reported McCarter drew $212 million in revenue in 2012. With revenue-per-lawyer of $568,000, the 14 additional attorneys would add about $8 million in revenue. That would have been enough to move McCarter from No. 2 to No. 1—ahead of Roseland’s Lowenstein Sandler.

The Environment & Energy practice now boasts 34 attorneys, up from 20.

Head count at Miller Balis, notwithstanding a recent retirement and an unexpected associate departure, has been steady in recent years, Gregg says.

He says the firm has had a number of suitors in recent years—particularly out-of-town firms with D.C. offices and larger D.C. firms that lacked an energy practice group—but McCarter was the best fit because it had two main needs: bolstering the energy practice group and getting a D.C. foothold.

The relationship began in late 2012, when the firms were introduced by a headhunter whom Vajtay and Gregg decline to name. Ira Gottlieb, who heads McCarter’s Environment & Energy group, then traveled to D.C. for a meeting, followed by numerous others.

Gregg says he and his partners were drawn to McCarter because it’s a regional firm that doesn’t aspire to morph into an international behemoth.

It’s McCarter’s first new office since 2006, when it took over 64-lawyer Gadsby Hannah in Boston—its largest acquisition ever. That deal allowed it to expand a burgeoning construction law practice and access life-sciences clients.

Three years earlier, in 2003, McCarter opened a Hartford, Conn., office by picking up 30 lawyers from Cummings & Lockwood.

The Miller Balis deal fits the firm’s longstanding “Amtrak strategy” of establishing offices up and down the rail service’s Northeast Corridor line. Aside from its Newark headquarters, McCarter also has offices in Stamford, Conn., New York, Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del.

Vajtay says he’s not concerned about establishing the McCarter brand in the well-saturated D.C. legal market because Miller Balis mainly competed with national firms rather than firms inside the Beltway. “We’re not really competing with D.C. firms for D.C. work.”

Still, Vajtay hopes Miller Balis’ reputation will help springboard the strategic growth firm leaders are envisioning, he says.

“Obviously it’s going to take time to become a household name in Washington, D.C.,” Vajtay says. “But we certainly hope that happens.”