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Zuckerman Spaeder convinces Murphy & Shaffer to join its fold

Zuckerman Spaeder LLP

Since the day William J. Murphy opened his litigation practice in 1984, he estimates he’d fielded more than 25 overtures to fold his firm into another one. None of them interested him.

None, that is, until Martin S. Himeles Jr. came knocking — for the second time.

The two sat down over lunch about five years ago to discuss the possibility of Murphy & Shaffer LLC joining up with Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, where Himeles is the managing partner of the Baltimore office.

Murphy let Himeles down gently, offering up kind words for the firm, but saying he and his partners enjoyed their independence.

In September, Himeles approached Murphy again.

“But, this time when Marty called, I was intrigued by it and thought it might be a good time for us to consider a move to a larger platform, if you will,” Murphy said. Based in Washington, D.C., the boutique litigation firm has about 65 attorneys and offices in Baltimore, New York, Tampa, Fla., and Wilmington, Del.

On Feb. 28, the Baltimore office will double to 10 attorneys, when the five lawyers from Murphy & Shaffer become part of the firm. Murphy, Robert T. Shaffer III and John J. Connolly will join as partners, while Daniel P. Moylan and Conor B. O’Croinin will be associates.

“Sometimes people’s circumstances change and I didn’t know whether that would be the case for him and so I thought, why not broach it again,” Himeles said. “He was very excited about the prospect from the moment I mentioned it. He was at a different point in his career and the benefits of the opportunity outweighed his desire for independence.”

From the start, Zuckerman Spaeder was single-minded in its effort to grow.

“We never approached another group of lawyers about joining us …” Himeles said. “There is no other group of lawyers that we’ve ever seen as such a good fit or has had such exciting potential.”

According to the law firm consultancy Altman Weil, firm mergers are on the rise.

“The race is on and mergers and acquisitions for law firms have heated up again,” said William Brennan, a principal with Altman Weil.

While they haven’t reached the “white-hot” pace of 2007, he said, “a lot of law firms that were previously unwilling to talk about mergers are now actively looking for a merger partner, because of the continuation of the overriding trends of globalization and consolidation within the industry.”

Both Murphy & Shaffer and Zuckerman Spaeder said the move will help round out their practices.

Murphy & Shaffer, which has a strong civil litigation practice, will provide a “deeper capability” in that area to Zuckerman Spaeder, which is known for its work in white-collar criminal defense, regulatory litigation and commercial litigation.

The Baltimore office is home to four partners — former U.S. Attorney Herbert Better, Himeles, Cy Smith and P. Andrew Torrez — and one counsel, William K. Meyer. Notable wins include the multimillion-dollar award of retroactive pension benefits to the family of football great “Iron Mike” Webster and a class action on behalf of Medicaid recipients who were overcharged for nursing home care.

Joining Zuckerman Spaeder will provide the lawyers from Murphy & Shaffer entre to bigger clients on the national stage. In particular, Murphy said the move would allow him to expand his white-collar criminal defense practice.

Among other things, Murphy represented several attorneys in the Office of the White House Counsel during the Clinton administration, as well as an assistant defense secretary in an action filed by former Pentagon staffer Linda Tripp for alleged violations of the federal Privacy Act and civil rights laws.

William J. Murphy

“I’ve done a lot of [white-collar criminal defense] work over the years, but I’m often representing individuals typically who might be part of a larger investigation, whereas the Zuckerman firm is more often involved in representing a corporation, and so I had that interest in expanding my practice in that way,” Murphy said.

Beyond serendipity

Gerard P. Martin was in Murphy’s shoes in 2003 — a name partner in a small firm ready to make a change — when he and three colleagues joined what is now Rosenberg | Martin | Greenberg LLP in Baltimore.

“There’s a certain point in your life when you say, ‘I don’t know if I want to keep pushing the way I’m pushing to keep the firm afloat,’” said Martin, who is friends with lawyers at Zuckerman Spaeder and Murphy & Shaffer and called the merger “fabulous.”

A founding member of a firm can feel the pressure of supporting not just fellow lawyers but the professional staff as well, Martin added.

“After a while, you don’t want to worry,” he said. At a larger firm, Martin continued, “if you have a down year, not everybody suffers because someone else is having an up year.”

Martin was 58 when he made his move; Murphy is now 57. Murphy said the pressures Martin described were not a factor in the merger decision, but he admitted he is happy to be relieved of “a lot of administrative responsibilities” in his new position.

“I’m happy to be able to focus more on the cases and my clients,” Murphy said.

Martin’s 2003 move was part of the dissolution of Martin, Snyder & Bernstein. His partner Gregg L. Bernstein, now the Baltimore City state’s attorney, subsequently joined Zuckerman Spaeder.

Bernstein, who was sworn in last month, took associate A. Paul Pineau with him to the state’s attorney’s office.

“From a serendipity standpoint, they’re pleased that they were able to accomplish this when I left because it certainly fills a void from when I left, and probably fills much more than a void,” Bernstein said. “Then again, it’s something that was thought about for a long time.”

Murphy said Bernstein acted as something of a “matchmaker” on the merging of the firms, calling Murphy in September in the midst of his campaign to convince him the merger would benefit both firms.

Running down a list of attributes — hard-working, detail-oriented, cerebral — common to members of both firms, Bernstein called the deal a “great fit.”

Andrew Jay Graham, a founding partner of Baltimore litigation firm Kramon & Graham PA, agreed, and said as much when Mark Foster, a Zuckerman Spaeder partner in Washington, D.C., and Graham’s roommate in prep school at Andover, called to ask his opinion on the potential merger.

“I don’t see how there’s any downside to the deal because they’re strengthening a very strong firm with excellent lawyers,” Graham said.

He did say that Murphy & Shaffer’s lawyers could struggle with the culture shift of moving to a bigger firm, and Murphy acknowledged that the hardest part about the move could be dealing with more bureaucracy than they are used to.

That, and occasionally driving into the wrong downtown parking garage.

Murphy & Shaffer will be leaving its offices at 36 S. Charles St. and moving into Zuckerman Spaeder’s existing offices on the 24th floor of 100 E. Pratt St., overlooking the Inner Harbor.

Although that brings the five-lawyer office up to 10, it won’t be quite as crowded as it sounds. Until Bernstein and Pineau’s departure in January, Zuckerman Spaeder was a seven-lawyer office. And it had plenty of elbow room.

Three years ago, Zuckerman Spaeder had the option to take over some space adjacent to the office. It was more than they needed at the time, Himeles said, but that’s about to change.

“Now,” Himeles said, “we have just enough space to do this without moving.”