Winston pinpoints DC, Houston as Howrey talks reach climax

Chicago-based firm homes in on 40 per cent of remaining partners and acquisition of brand rights

Bob Ruyak
Bob Ruyak

Winston & Strawn is finalising plans to take over Howrey’s Washington DC and Houston teams while also ­negotiating purchasing the rights to the troubled firm’s brand.

Winston’s partnership is due to vote on plans to acquire up to 40 per cent of Howrey’s remaining ­partners.

Although the firm has made offers to partners across Howrey’s global ­network, including a number in Brussels and Paris, its focus is on acquiring the DC and Houston teams.

The majority of partners who received offers in these two offices are believed to have accepted, but no deal can be completed until ­Winston’s partnership ­ratifies it in a partnership vote.

The vote was initially due to be held by 1 March, but sources believe it could be delayed by two weeks. One sticking point is over the future of the Howrey brand.

Despite the controversy that has engulfed Howrey in recent months, Winston has reportedly expressed an interest in acquiring the Howrey name, and may consider incorporating it into the Winston & Strawn brand.

One source believes that, whatever the outcome of the brand discussions, Howrey “as we know it” could cease to exist by the end of March.

Howrey partners will not vote on any move en masse to Winston, with negotiations being undertaken by the firm’s senior management, led by managing ­partner Bob Ruyak.

The source said: “The [Winston] vote is tied into a couple of other things, including the talks over the name, but with each hour it becomes more likely that [the vote] will happen.”

A Howrey partner commented: “Almost everyone they asked in Washington and Houston, with a few exceptions, has accepted the offers. This isn’t a merger, this is essentially them going to another firm, and the idea is that the name would be an asset acquisition.

“I think it’s fair to assume that, one way or another, Howrey will disappear, but the name could live on; although I’m not sure that as a brand it will have enormous market value.”

In an interview with The Lawyer in January, Ruyak claimed that the spate of departures the firm had ­suffered in the preceding months was the result of a firmwide restructuring.

But his claim that the firm had decided to spin off its European IP practice to focus on competition was challenged last week when 17 competition and antirust lawyers left the Brussels office to join US firm ­Shearman & Sterling.

One former Howrey ­partner in the US admitted to being shocked by the pace of recent developments.

“For the sake of the people that are left, I hope Winston & Strawn will pick them up,” the partner said. “We had a difficult year in 2009, but 2010 initially looked like it was going to be a reasonable year.

“By the middle of the year we knew that wasn’t the case, but the speed at which things have happened is ­surprising. We didn’t see it ­getting to this extent.”

Winston has form in making acquisitions from distressed firms. In ­November 2008 it launched in Hong Kong after hiring a team from the now defunct Heller Ehrman, while days later it also hired 19 lawyers from dissolved firm Thelen Reid Brown Raysman & Steiner.