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Amid group restlessness, attorneys leap between firms

September 06, 2002 | Boston Business Journal

The fragmentation of Hutchins, Wheeler & Dittmar and Peabody & Arnold LLP has induced several full and partial practice-group departures, but individual attorneys are also jumping ship.

In early September, for example, two Hutchins Wheeler intellectual property attorneys will join Choate, Hall & Stewart. One of them is Don Muirhead, the former head of Hutchins Wheeler's intellectual-property practice group. Muirhead and Anne Saturnelli were both named partners at Choate Hall. In a written statement to the Boston Business Journal, Choate Hall co-managing partner John Nadas said both attorneys have "unusually impressive backgrounds in electrical engineering," along with experience in the high-tech hardware and software industries.

Peabody & Arnold attorneys are also finding new homes as the firm restructures itself into an insurance defense and commercial litigation firm. Six attorneys announced their September move to Nutter, McClennen & Fish LLP. But in October, another Peabody & Arnold real estate partner, Suanne St. Charles, will become a partner in Gadsby Hannah LLP's real estate group. And Jonathan Black, the former chairman of Peabody & Arnold's mezzanine finance group, was tapped for a partnership post in Brown Rudnick Berlack Israels LLP's real estate group.

Sullivan & Worcester LLP has nabbed tax expert William Halmkin, a partner in Peabody & Arnold's private client department and business litigation group. Halmkin moved to Sullivan & Worcester right after Labor Day, said Ameek Ponda, a partner and co-director of Sullivan & Worcester's tax department. Ponda said Halmkin was attractive to Sullivan & Worcester because his résumé includes a stint as former deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue as well as experience in tax litigation.

"He's an expert in state tax controversies and federal tax controversies," Ponda said.

Business litigation attorneys and former Peabody & Arnold partners Thomas Hickey III and Michael Sacco are heading to Hill & Barlow PC. Both represent public-employee pension plans.

Legal recruiter Mark Kwatcher of Boston-based Kwatcher Legal Placement said firms with strategic plans to grow certain practice areas or enter new ones are eyeing Peabody & Arnold and Hutchins Wheeler attorneys.

"I wouldn't call it a scramble," Kwatcher said. "But clients are open to individuals and groups who might make sense economically."

Morrison Mahoney & Miller LLP, a Boston-based firm with approximately 150 attorneys, is among those eyeing the field of newly available talent, said managing partner Mark Harty.

"We'd be interested in talking to people who might be interested in talking to us," Harty said. "Our door is open in terms of some possible discussions with these partners."

Before the defections — which include up to 17 attorneys who are leaving Hutchins Wheeler to form the Boston office of New York-based Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP — Hutchins Wheeler had about 110 attorneys and Peabody & Arnold had 96 lawyers. Neither firm returned telephone calls about the current headcount.

Falling fees

According to the IPO.com web site, which tracks IPOs across the nation, only three Boston-headquartered law firms served as the issuer law firm for an IPO this year. The score stands at one each for Bingham McCutchen LLP, Goodwin Procter LLP and Hale and Dorr LLP.

Hale and Dorr served as the issuer law firm for 16 IPOs in 1999 and 14 in 2000. According to IPO.com, neither Bingham McCutchen nor Goodwin Procter were listed as an issuer firm in 1999 and 2000.

Meanwhile, some once-active law firms have yet to appear among this year's issues. Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault LLP was the issuer firm in eight IPOs in 1999 and six the following year. Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo PC was the issuer firm for six IPOs in 2000.

Law firms make "hundreds of thousands of dollars," on substantial IPOs, said Tom Clay, managing director of the Newtown Square, Pa., legal consulting firm Altman Weil Inc.

Hale and Dorr senior partner David Westenberg concurred that a typical fee for an issuer counsel on an IPO is $300,000 to $400,000. But Westenberg said the decline for Hale and Dorr "isn't nearly as precipitous as IPO stats would suggest" since the firm is diversified in many practice areas.

Consultant Jim Durham of the Dedham-based Law Firm Development Group takes a different view of the direction of issuer fees. He said competitive pressures have been driving IPO fees downward for the past several years.

"There were firms quoting $100,000 as far back as five to six years ago," Durham said.

SHERI QUALTERS covers advertising, public relations, law, utilities and higher education for the Boston Business Journal. She can be reached by e-mail at squalters@bizjournals.com.