WilmerHale unfazed by Heller raid as Europe gets overhaul

WilmerHale unfazed by Heller raid as Europe gets overhaul” />Heller Ehrman hammered the final nail into the coffin of the European dream that was the old firm of Brobeck Hale and Dorr when it scooped a three-partner corporate team from WilmerHale last week to help launch its London office (www.thelawyer.com, 12 February).

WilmerHale, however, is unlikely to be too upset by the exits. The firm has been busy scaling back the European operation it inherited from Hale and Dorr following the merger of Hale and Wilmer Cutler & Pickering in 2004. And a whole repositioning of the practice along US lines has made anything Brobeck-related surplus to requirements.

The Washington DC-based firm ditched its Munich office at the end of 2006 and The Lawyer can reveal that the Oxford office is the next to go.
WilmerHale’s reinvention of its European operation in the image of its US practice means no place for many of the former partners of Brobeck Hale and Dorr.

During the past year tax partner Simon Court left for Blake Lapthorn Linnell (now merged with Tarlo Lyons), technology partner Mark Haftke set up his own boutique and now three corporate partners – Richard Eaton, Chris Grew and Struan Penwarden – are set to join Heller. The firm’s technology-focused Munich corporate team, led by partners Rainer Kreifels and Hubert Besner, has also set up its own boutique, M Law Group.

Sources suggest that none of them will be missed. And none are likely to miss WilmerHale either.

“The firm is driven by securities litigation, securities enforcement and potentially IP and patent litigation. These practice areas are tremendously successful, but the corporate work isn’t as prosperous as other firms’, despite a booming market,” says a former WilmerHale partner.

Joint managing partner Bill Perlstein denies this, saying: “We have roughly 200 corporate lawyers out of around 1,100 worldwide. It’s a practice that’s focused on mid-market biotechnology deals, not the mega-deals.”

The firm’s Boston and Palo Alto offices focus on venture capital funds and the firm has a practice that deals with start-ups in Waltham, just outside Boston.
“The corporate team in Boston is strong and the start-up team in Waltham is good, but even Bill wouldn’t describe the firm as being corporate-driven,” says Eaton, who is negotiating his exit for Heller.

Perlstein compares Waltham to Oxford, but that office will now be closed, with UK managing partner Joe Pillman moving to London. Pillman is the sole remaining UK corporate partner from the Brobeck Hale and Dorr days. He sits on the firm’s executive committee together with another London-based partner, Dieter Lange, a regulatory partner and European senior partner.

Perlstein suggests that their presence on the executive committee means that the firm is committed to Europe. “We’ll resume expansion in Europe,” he says.
Heller, by contrast, is right in the middle of its expansion. The firm has complemented its corporate raid on WilmerHale with the hire of Slaughter and May senior competition associate Douglas Lahnborg, who is joining the firm as a shareholder (Heller has shareholders rather than partners). Lahnborg joins European co-chair Ted Henneberry, who was a member of the Irish Competition Authority before joining Heller.

Heller chairman Matt Larrabee explains: “Strategically our aims are to extend three of our most important practices in the US, which are the same in Asia: corporate with a heavy technology component, the competition arena and real estate.”

The firm has transferred three of its most senior partners in those practice areas from the US to London to guide the growth. The firm hopes to have 25 lawyers in London by the end of the year.

It has made a solid start. The WilmerHale team reflects perfectly Heller’s US corporate practice. It brought in $7m (£4.28m) in 2003, rising to $8.4m (£4.62m) in 2005. Figures for 2006 were not available.

It is likely to bring most of its business with it, as it was fairly self-contained. While its results are not spectacular, they were consistent, and with Eaton and Grew winning the business and Penwarden acting as the doer, it has a good balance. The team is also pleased to be reunited with a bunch of former Brobeck Phleger & Harrison partners on the West Coast of the US, who joined Heller after Brobeck went bust.

While Heller has benefited from Brobeck’s failure, WilmerHale has made a concerted effort to distance itself from Brobeck’s legacy.