Partners at the two firms, both deeply rooted in their respective cities, voted last week to approve the merger, which is expected to be effective May 31. The partners will also be partners in the new firm, to be known as Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr. The firms predict combined revenue for 2004 of $700 million, putting them among the 10 highest-grossing firms in the United States.
“We saw that we both saw the world comparably, saw that the areas that we each were looking to expand into happened to be areas that the other firm was strong in,” said William J. Perlstein, managing partner of Wilmer. Conversations began when the two firms were working together on a case in California last summer, Mr. Perlstein said, and led to increasingly formal talks about a merger.
The managing partners emphasized that the merger was not a defensive one, but was, because of each firm’s strengths and weaknesses, a way to build a firm that would be stronger than the sum of its parts. But consultants noted that some managers of law firms, even large ones – Wilmer has about 560 lawyers, Hale & Dorr has about 500 – were concerned about being too small to compete effectively.
“This is a strategy that I would define as offensive, not defensive,” said William F. Lee, managing partner of Hale & Dorr. “Neither of us felt that we were in a position where five years, eight years down the road we would find ourselves either a boutique or irrelevant.”
A combination of two firms of comparable size is more difficult than an acquisition, said Ward Bower, a principal at Altman Weil, a consultancy that advises law firms. Most law firms describe acquisitions as mergers even when one is clearly larger and more successful than the other, Mr. Bower noted.
“It requires a much more complicated integration” when the firms are equals, Mr. Bower said. “You don’t have a dominant firm.
“What’s going to make it work is probably going to be the ability to integrate cultures,” he added. “Are the value systems the same or are they compatible with each other? Are the people going to get along with each other?”
Wilmer was founded in 1962 with 19 lawyers and has built its reputation in part on advising clients involved in mergers, investigations or other matters that involved dealing with federal regulators. Lloyd N. Cutler, one of the founding partners, served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton and to President Jimmy Carter, as well as a special counsel to Mr. Carter on ratification of the second strategic arms limitations treaty in the late 1970’s. More recently, the firm’s lawyers defended the McCain-Feingold legislation on campaign finance on a pro bono basis before the Supreme Court.
The history of Hale & Dorr, which is known for its expertise in intellectual property law and corporate work, goes back further. The firm was established the same year that the Red Sox last won the World Series, in 1918. One partner, Joseph N. Welch, represented the Army, pro bono, in hearings held by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954. Another partner, James D. St. Clair, served as an adviser to President Richard Nixon in 1974.