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Merger helps law firm court N.J. clients

Eckert Seamans sought Trenton foothold to better service pharma, other industries

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‘This is not something we needed to do,’ but merging with Eckert Seamans was a good opportunity for Sterns & Weinroth, says William J. Bigham.
‘This is not something we needed to do,’ but merging with Eckert Seamans was a good opportunity for Sterns & Weinroth, says William J. Bigham. - (AARON HOUSTON)

The Pittsburgh law firm Eckert, Seamans, Cherin & Mellott LLC spent years scouting for an opportunity to enter New Jersey before opening a Newark office in January, then acquiring Trenton’s Sterns & Weinroth, effective April 1.

“We needed a presence in New Jersey,” said Timothy P. Ryan, chief executive of Eckert Seamans, which now has 386 attorneys in 13 offices from Boston to Richmond, Va. “We have clients based in cities outside New Jersey that have a substantial New Jersey presence, and we have clients in New Jersey. We had difficulty servicing them because of a lack of a substantial physical presence here.”

Ryan said his firm is very active in professional liability and pharmaceutical liability. “We have a lot of work in New Jersey, and for several years, we just could not find the right opportunity. Then all the pieces came together in very short order.”

Sterns & Weinroth brings 24 attorneys on board, including three registered lobbyists. Eckert Seamans has “a very substantial lobbying practice in Pennsylvania and in Virginia,” Ryan said. “We understand these practices and we like them a lot.”

Richard J. Van Wagner, who leads the government relations practice at Sterns & Weinroth “was known to us by reputation and, frankly, was a very big draw.”

William J. Bigham, managing director of the Trenton firm, said the merger “is a huge plus for us by increasing our ability to provide our clients with expertise that a firm of our size doesn’t have. In addition, we have the ability to serve client needs in other jurisdictions within the Eckert footprint. Their Boston-to-Richmond scope is exactly where it’s most likely that our clients would need our assistance.”

Sterns & Weinroth was created in 1994 by lawyers who left the Newark firm of Hannock Weisman, which ceased operating in 1999. “This is not something that we needed to do,” Bigham said. “We’ve had other firms approach us and we just have not thought the fit was right. We have not sought out a (merger) opportunity, but when people have come to us, we have listened.”

Ryan said, “Gambling is a huge part of our practice in Pennsylvania, and we would expect that to carry over into New Jersey.” But lobbying is actually just a small part of his firm’s gaming practice: “We are the leading gaming practice in Pennsylvania, but we do far more legal work than lobbying. We represent (gaming firms) on their applications and their compliance: we are their lawyers — not necessarily their lobbyists.”

He said Sterns & Weinroth “is relatively modest on the gaming side, and we see a lot of opportunity to grow there.”

The merger expands the horizons of the Sterns & Weinroth attorneys who are joining Eckert Seamans, which was founded in 1958, Ryan said. The Trenton firm has practices in real estate, government and litigation; “now they have a much broader platform to develop stronger and deeper relationships with their clients,” he said. Besides pharmaceuticals and gaming, Eckert Seamans has practices in hospitality, energy, tax, aviation, employment, construction and intellectual property.

In the past, Sterns & Weinroth would be forced to refer clients out to other firms if they lacked a particular expertise. And that means “not just losing work, but allowing other law firms to develop relationships with your clients,” Ryan noted. “We in turn will be able to offer some incredibly qualified legal talent to our clients that have interests in New Jersey, and not have to staff that work from Philadelphia” or refer the work out to other New Jersey firms.

Ryan declined to disclose his firm’s annual billings or the names of any corporate clients.

David Katzenstein, the member in charge of the Newark office, is one of nine attorneys who joined Eckert Seamans from McGivney & Kluger; five are based in Newark, the others in White Plains, N.Y., and Boston.

The Eckert Seamans expansion into New Jersey illustrates how firms pursue strategic growth, according to Joel A. Rose, a Cherry Hill-based management consultant who advises law firms.

“A firm as sophisticated as Eckert makes sure there is a lot of logic and good economic sense to merging with a Trenton law firm,” Rose said. “The likelihood is that they have clients that need representation in New Jersey, and they see an opportunity to acquire a firm with contacts and relationships in New Jersey.”

Bigham and Ryan said their firms have similar cultures. Both take a subjective approach to determining compensation, rather than paying lawyers based on the profits they bring into the firm — the so-called “eat what you kill” approach. “We look at a lawyer’s total contribution to the firm, not just what they bring in,” Ryan said.

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @bethfitzgerald8

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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