D.C.'S Major Law Firms Joining Merger Frenzy

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Byline: Tom Ramstack, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Washington's major law firms are getting caught up in a frenzy of consolidations that is likely to drive legal fees higher.

Last month, the firm Swidler Berlin was bought by the Boston firm Bingham McCutchen, giving the combined enterprise nearly 1,000 lawyers.

Law firms say their clients can get better service after mergers, but acknowledge that legal fees often increase.

"The combined firm will be an even bigger force in Washington," said Barry Direnfeld, managing partner of Swidler Berlin, referring to the acquisition by Bingham McCutchen.

The professional services consulting firm Hildebrandt International counted 49 major law-firm mergers in the United States last year, up from 47 in 2004 and 35 in 2003.

The law-firm mergers follow trends of corporate mergers, which are on a fast pace for 2006, Wall Street analysts say.

"Corporate mergers create larger, more geographically diverse clients needing larger, more geographically diverse law firms," said Ward Bower, principal in Altman Weil Inc., a Newtown Square, Pa., legal consulting firm.

Consolidations among law firms raised the average size of small firms from 30 lawyers in 2004 to 67 in 2005, Hildebrandt International said.

The largest merger last year was the combination of London-based DLA Piper Rudnick with San Diego's Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich, creating a trans-Atlantic firm of about 3,000 lawyers. The second biggest was the merger of Los Angeles firm Pillsbury Winthrop with Shaw Pittman, which operates with about 900 lawyers.

In Washington during 2005, Venable LLP acquired the New York firm of Heard & O'Toole, Shaw Pittman merged with Pillsbury Winthrop, and Burns Doane Swecker & Mathis merged with Pittsburgh's Buchanan Ingersoll. …