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New Jersey's diversified economy supports a large legal ecosystem

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New Jersey's diverse economy is reflected by its biggest law firms, which have grown with their clients and last year accounted for six of the 100 largest private companies in the state.

"Where there is a huge concentration of business and industrial firepower, one would certainly expect to see strong and vibrant law firms growing side by side with their clients," said Stephen Vajtay Jr., managing partner of McCarter & English, the largest law firm on the list, which ranks 41st among the top privately owned companies in New Jersey, with about $200 million in revenue.

Vajtay said New Jersey "remains an absolute and perhaps unparalleled hub of the pharmaceutical industry, in which we continue to play a major role both on the products liability and intellectual property side." He said the state's substantial banking and real estate development sectors — and a vibrant startup culture funded by venture capital and private equity — also feed the business of law in New Jersey.

"New Jersey is a very strong market for the provision of legal services," said Patrick Dunican Jr., managing director of Newark-based Gibbons, which ranks 68th on the list, with revenue of $115 million.

Dunican said New Jersey has drawn a concentration of businesses — notably, pharmaceuticals, banking and health care — due in part to its location between New York and Philadelphia and a transportation network of highways, airports and seaports that connect New Jersey to the world.

"If the economy is strong, then the law firm business is strong," he said.

Dunican said there also is a structural reason why several NewJersey law firms have grown into very large private companies: state Supreme Court rules require New Jersey law firms to be owned by lawyers.

"We can't be public companies. We have to be privately owned by lawyers," Dunican said.

He said Gibbons has 230 lawyers, and the Newark office is the largest, with 160; the firm also has offices in Trenton; New York; Philadelphia; and Wilmington, Del. Gibbons has broadened and deepened its practice areas in the past decade, because "as international and national firms grew, they wanted to come into New Jersey and provide the same services to our clients that we were already providing — so we needed to grow to compete."

McCarter & English, meanwhile, has a long history in Newark. According to Vajtay, Thomas McCarter founded the firm in Newton in 1844 and moved it five years later to Newark. Today, about half the firm's 400 lawyers are in Newark, and it has offices from Boston to Wilmington.

While McCarter is now a regional firm with a New Jersey concentration, "it always made sense to us to remain tied to New Jersey," he said. "And Newark is the hub for all the various pockets of development."

New Jersey, and Newark in particular, tend to be overshadowed by New York, but "we're beginning to see cities like Newark and New Brunswick and Trenton and Camden being rediscovered by businesses because of the extraordinarily favorable real estate values — and in some cases, tax incentives," Vajtay said. He said Gov. Chris Christie "is trying mightily to make New Jersey a friendlier state from a tax standpoint for new and existing businesses, and that process is well underway."

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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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