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Damon Morey considers merger to become mega-law firm

Damon Morey LLP, one of Buffalo’s largest and best-known law firms, is in preliminary talks to merge with a larger Northeastern firm, a deal that would – if completed – end nearly a century of independence while creating the largest law firm in upstate New York.

Damon Morey is negotiating with Hiscock & Barclay LLP, a Syracuse-based regional firm with more than 210 attorneys in 10 offices stretching from Toronto to Boston to Washington, D.C. Such a merger would combine the No. 3 and No. 6 law firms in Buffalo, and form a powerful local rival to Buffalo’s two dominant firms, Hodgson Russ LLP and Phillips Lytle LLP.

The new firm would have nearly 300 attorneys, including 115 in Buffalo, if all partners and associates stay on. No final decisions have been made on a name or other details. But while discussions are still in an early stage, observers widely expect that Hiscock’s leadership would be in charge, led by managing partner John P. Langan.

“I’ve heard from multiple sources that I know well that that’s what’s being contemplated,” one former Damon attorney said. “You can put any lipstick you want on it, but it would be a Hiscock-run firm.”

Damon managing partner Peter Marlette would not comment on or confirm the discussions, which he referred to as “rumors.”

“Damon Morey is doing very well, but like any firm, we’re always looking for ways to improve,” Marlette said. “There’s nothing even close to happening.”

But members of the local legal community are talking about it, and several former Damon attorneys confirmed the talks, although they noted that the deal is not final and could fall apart. Law firm mergers involve many intricate details, since the firms are structured as partnerships of many lawyers.

“It’s way too early to talk about it. It’s not even close,” said a knowledgeable source within Damon Morey. “We are two great firms that are well respected in the legal and business communities. Law firms these days are having discussions with each other all the time.”

However, Damon leaders already have notified all of the firm’s attorneys and even administrative staff that the talks are going on. Another former Damon lawyer said he has heard that “some partners are looking to land at other firms,” calling it “essentially free agency.”

The firms would also have to decide which office to keep. Damon Morey occupies two floors of Uniland Development Co.’s Avant Building, while Hiscock is on the 11th floor of M&T Center at Fountain Plaza. Both reportedly have extra space to accommodate more staff, but the Avant facility is much newer, and had been designed to handle more than 110 attorneys.

Langan could not be reached for comment Tuesday. James Domagalski, managing partner of Hiscock’s Buffalo office, also would not comment or confirm discussions, but noted that “we’re always looking to grow.”

The proposed merger would radically reshape the upper ranks of Buffalo’s legal community.

Damon Morey’s roots trace back to the founding of Dudley, Stowe & Sawyer in 1917, and then its merger with Morey, Schlenker, Murray, Steward & Beyer in 1963. That combination created Damon, Morey, Sawyer & Moot, and later just Damon Morey as of 1982. It absorbed Diebold & Millonz in 1983 and Renaldo & Palumbo in 2007.

Among its more significant legal work, it helped 20,000 non-union employees in a class-action lawsuit against Bethlehem Steel Corp. to regain free medical and life insurance, represented prison guard supervisors after the Attica prison revolt, handled Love Canal environmental litigation, defended Owens Corning against more than 1,000 asbestos cases, and represented The Buffalo Evening News in antitrust litigation against the now-defunct Courier Express.

Damon Morey currently has 74 attorneys listed in Buffalo, with additional small offices in Rochester and Clarence.

“Damon has gone through a lot,” a former Damon attorney said. “They’ve had a few tough rounds, and this is a positive thing.”

But that’s not to say Damon needed a merger to survive, the former attorneys said. Last year, they said, the firm sought to absorb the smaller McGavern & McGavern in an effort to grow, but talks fell through. This time, though, Damon Morey would be the target, not the acquirer.

The former Damon attorneys said Hiscock approached Damon Morey on combining. Hiscock, which has 41 attorneys locally, was founded in 1855, with offices in Albany, Boston, Elmira, Newark, New York City, Rochester, Washington and Toronto, Syracuse and Buffalo. It is ranked among the nation’s 250 largest law firms.