The momentous merger of Boston’s Hale and Dorr with Wilmer Cutler Pickering has lawyers predicting another Big Deal among DC law firms. Do they know something? Or are they just blowing in the wind?

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.

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