Piper to acquire Verner law firm

It will add 80 lawyers in deal that goes into effect Oct. 1

September 24, 2002|By Eileen Ambrose | Eileen Ambrose,SUN STAFF

Maryland's largest law firm, Piper Rudnick LLP, is expected to announce today that it is acquiring a leading government affairs law firm in Washington with well-connected lawyers, including former Sens. George J. Mitchell and Bob Dole.

The deal to acquire Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand was unanimously approved by partners of both firms last week and takes effect Oct. 1.

Piper will assume certain assets and liabilities of Verner, but there is no cash consideration in the combination of the two law firms, said Frank B. Burch Jr., co-chairman of Piper.

Piper has about 825 lawyers in 10 offices, including 180 lawyers in Baltimore. With the acquisition, the firm will add 80 lawyers and a dozen other professionals.

"These folks have, if not the leading, one of the leading government affairs practices in the country. They are the people to whom business leaders turn to when they need to understand how to deal with the Congress, with the executive branch and how to deal with federal agencies," Burch said yesterday. "This was an opportunity for us to acquire that tremendous asset that we could make available to our institutional client base."

Mitchell, chairman of Verner, said, "As business becomes large and more centralized, businesses are looking for firms that can provide the full range of legal services. We think that is important for our future and believe Piper does as well."

Piper announced this month an alliance with the Cohen Group, a consulting firm whose chairman is former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen.

Both deals fit with Piper's strategy of building a national and international law firm, Burch said. Since Sept. 11, and since questionable accounting practices at some U.S. companies have come to light, the role of government has become more important in the business world and a need exists for law firms to help clients with legislative and regulatory issues here and abroad, he said.

The Cohen Group consults on how companies can do business in foreign countries and assesses the political situations in various markets. Verner's focus has been federal affairs and regulatory issues, and on an international practice representing corporations and foreign governments. For example, Verner has been representing Ethiopia in a dispute with neighboring Eritrea.

Piper, a business law firm, brings expertise in real estate, technology, litigation and government regulation. Its clients include WorldCom Inc., former Enron Corp. chief executive Kenneth L. Lay, Microsoft Corp. and Philip Morris Cos. Inc.

Piper name stays

Verner will operate under Piper Rudnick's name. Burch and Lee I. Miller will remain co-chairmen of the firm. Mitchell will become a senior partner and divide his time between the New York and Washington offices.

Former Kansas senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole, who is special counsel with Verner, has taken a leave while his wife runs for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina. He is expected to decide after the election in November whether he will join Piper.

Piper's roots go back to the 18th century in Maryland. In 1999, Piper & Marbury merged with Chicago-based Rudnick & Wolfe, and this year it shortened its name. Its main offices are in Baltimore, Washington and Chicago.

Verner Liipfert, which was founded in 1960 in Washington by two lawyers, initially specialized in aviation. By last year, the firm had grown to 160 lawyers. Since then, the firm has restructured, closing some areas of practice, including aviation.

34th-largest

According to American Lawyer magazine, Piper was the 34th-largest law firm in the country based on revenue last year of $382 million. Verner was 182nd with revenue of $83.5 million. Their combined revenue would have made them as the 22nd-largest firm.

This year, Piper's revenue is expected to be $410 million, and Verner's is expected to be $55 million.

Berl Bernhard, a founder of Verner, said his firm was not looking for a partner when it was approached by another firm about six months ago. Word got out, and soon the firm had 18 suitors. Serious talks between Verner and Piper began a couple of months ago, he said.

One of the main selling points was that there was little overlap between the two firms, Bernhard said. The second was the supportive and goodwill culture at Piper, he said.

"Together, you are looking at a very, very potent entity in five to 10 years from now, if not immediately," Bernhard said.

The deal probably isn't the last for Piper. Burch said the firm is interested in a deal with a London-based firm.

Steven Isberg, an associate finance professor at the University of Baltimore, said mergers between law firms have increased since the technology bubble burst. Once technology clients disappeared, firms looked to mergers as a way to acquire and keep clients by offering a broader array of services. Mergers have also picked up between U.S. and overseas firms, he said.

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