McCormick Group Managing Principal Steve Nelson was interviewed by the National Law Journal on Crowell & Moring’s strategic merger and bid for a national presence.
By Katelyn Polantz | December 20, 2016
When news broke last week that Crowell & Moring was in talks to merge with a smaller New York-based firm, Herrick, Feinstein, the reaction of many in Washington was one of curiosity, but not surprise.
One Crowell alum, when contacted about the firm’s possible expansion, asked right away if the merger target was a New York litigation boutique. “That makes sense,” the person said.
News of the potential merger “comes as no surprise,” said another person who was familiar with Crowell — but not with Herrick, a relatively unknown name in the District of Columbia.
Indeed, 500-lawyer Crowell, known for its government-contracts group and other regulatory and litigation practices in Washington, has long been in the hunt to remake its presence nationally.
“If you want to be on the national stage, you have to have a credible New York office,” said Steve Nelson, a law firm consultant and headhunter with the McCormick Group in Washington. “The relationship between New York and D.C. is closer than ever.”
Crowell isn’t a firm to take a merger proposition lightly. Founded in 1979 by 53 lawyers who split from Jones Day, the partnership has long focused on maintaining its uniqueness.
Until relatively recently, that first generation of lawyers influenced nearly every major decision by the firm. Change came slowly, and strategic decisions could stew for years.
“They are sort of closer to the true partnership model than just about anybody else,” Nelson said.
But the firm has been evolving.
Almost two years ago, the roughly 100-strong partnership elected as chairwoman Angela Styles, who joined the firm from Miller & Chevalier in 2007. As part of a new generation of lawyers at Crowell, Styles ushered in a new operations structure.
The longtime chief marketing and business-development officer, Jose Cunningham, moved to Nixon Peabody, to be replaced by Melanie Zaletsky, who came from Hogan Lovells and took a different title, chief client-development and practice-management officer.
Ellen Moran Dwyer, formerly the firmwide managing partner, is now general counsel, and the managing partner position was shelved. Jim Dixon, who previously worked at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, now holds the new position of chief operating officer.
A Crowell & Moring spokesperson declined to comment for this article, and Cunningham did not return a call for comment.
The firm has had an office in New York for 10 years, with a group of 50 attorneys built up mainly through small lateral movements, which at Crowell happens mostly through one- and two-partner moves.
A larger group joining the firm, such as Larry Eisenstadt’s nine-lawyer energy practice, which moved from Dickstein Shapiro is 2013, is atypical.
Still, the New York office’s litigators carry some weight. There’s Alan Howard, a lawyer who gained fame for working on the racially charged Jena Six case (and adopted one of the defendants), and his partner Edwin Baum, who came from Proskauer Rose. There’s Kelly Currie, who served briefly as acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York after Loretta Lynch became U.S. attorney general.
Joe Adams was another notable Crowell partner in New York, until he left for Cravath, Swaine & Moore last year. He now works in-house at a company in South Dakota.
“If Crowell wanted to bolster many things — and perhaps even its culture in New York — this merger would help,” said Karen Katz, a managing director of the consultancy Law Firm Client Development, based in Boston. She is also a former Crowell associate.
Historically, D.C.-founded law firms claimed most of the regulatory and litigation business in the city. But as rich New York firms expanded with hires in the nation’s capital, many of them saw their shares of the pie shrinking.
New York firms such as Willkie Farr & Gallagher; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Debevoise & Plimpton; and Davis Polk & Wardwell have been competitive for work in D.C. for several years now. Firms that expanded from the West Coast or Chicago to New York, like Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Latham & Watkins; Jones Day; or Kirkland & Ellis, are booming in the District, too.
For homegrown Washington firms, meanwhile, New York has been a harder market to break into. Even those with offices there may struggle to grab substantial business. Mostly, Washington firms that successfully established themselves in New York — such as Wilmer and Hogan Lovells — did so through mergers.
“Trying to develop a New York office without a merger that’s really representing the big financial institutions and big corporate interests is difficult,” Nelson said. “Merging with a specialty firm or boutique is a very difficult strategy