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Bingham McCutchen discloses merger

McKee Nelson deal adds 120 lawyers

Jay Zimmerman has led Bingham McCutchen for more than 15 years. Jay Zimmerman has led Bingham McCutchen for more than 15 years.
By Sean Sposito
Globe Correspondent / July 7, 2009
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Bingham McCutchen LLP, one of Boston’s largest corporate law firms, has announced plans to merge with McKee Nelson LLP, with the combined firm to use the Bingham McCutchen name.

The firms signed a letter of intent to merge on or before Aug. 1.

McKee Nelson, with 120 lawyers and offices in New York and Washington, D.C., will bring the total at Bingham McCutchen to roughly 1,120 lawyers worldwide.

According to a Bingham McCutchen spokeswoman, no layoffs are planned, but the firm will assess its personnel after the merger is finalized.

This is Bingham McCutchen’s 10th merger under Jay Zimmerman, the chairman who has led the firm for more than 15 years, and its first since 2007, when it bolstered its Tokyo presence to more than 60 lawyers with the addition of New Tokyo International, a firm known for its financial restructuring and intellectual property work.

The firm’s largest merger took place in 2002, when 500-lawyer Bingham Dana merged with 300-lawyer McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enerson of California.

Despite the deal, the frequency of law firm mergers has slowed.

Bill Brennan, a principal at legal consulting firm Altman Weil Inc. in Newtown Square, Pa., said there were only seven law firm mergers nationwide in the second quarter of 2009, down from 26 in the same quarter last year. All of the seven were smaller deals than the Bingham merger, Brennan said.

“The pace declined precipitously, but that is because law firm leaders became reluctant to take on risks - risks associated with taking in a new office or assuming new responsibilities for more lawyers,’’ he said.

“At the upper ends of the legal industry, you see no increased activity as a result of what has been going on with the economy,’’ said Zimmerman. “I think people in that upper end of the scale are looking at strategic combinations that make sense.’’

Talks with McKee Nelson began in earnest about six weeks ago, he added, although the two firms began speaking nine months before the merger.

The benefit for both was strategic, he said, because bringing in McKee Nelson will enhance some of Bingham McCutchen’s strongest specialties: tax, securities, and financial services litigation.

As for McKee Nelson, it “had a little bit too much exposure on the capital markets side,’’ Zimmerman said, “since then they had a group that left . . . and that lightened them up.’’

Brennan said he is seeing an increasing number of law firms enter talks to combine or create new firms.

“In the fourth quarter of this year, we’re going to see a resurgence of law firm mergers,’’ he said.

“There has just been so much disruption due to the slumping economy.’’

Sean Sposito can be reached at ssposito@globe.com.