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Damon Morey merges with Hiscock & Barclay to create largest upstate New York law firm

The merger negotiations that led to the creation of upstate New York’s largest law firm began with a casual lunch meeting in January in the office of Peter S. Marlette, the managing partner of Buffalo’s third-largest law firm, Damon Morey.

Over sandwiches, Marlette and another Damon partner, Christopher T. Greene, discussed with their friend James P. Domagalski, managing director of Hiscock & Barclay’s Buffalo office, the pros and cons of combining Damon Morey with Hiscock & Barclay, a law firm founded in Syracuse with 10 offices spread across the Northeast.

They hardly touched their meals. But the lunch meeting, made at Domagalski’s suggestion, led to more-serious talks among Damon Morey and Hiscock & Barclay officials, votes by the firms’ partners to approve the merger and, finally, Monday’s announcement of the creation of the renamed Barclay Damon law firm.

“It developed from there, in the four months, from an idea, to a concept, to a plan,” said Marlette, who will serve with Domagalski as co-managing directors of the new firm’s Buffalo office. “Ultimately, it resulted in both sides being convinced that this was a great thing for both firms.”

The combined firm employs 275 lawyers in 12 offices stretching from Toronto to Washington, D.C. Barclay Damon’s local office, with 105 attorneys, is its largest and now ranks the firm a close No. 3 in the market to Buffalo’s dominant law firms, Hodgson Russ and Phillips Lytle.

Senior Barclay Damon attorneys say the new firm will be a regional, not Buffalo-centric, law firm with a large health care practice as well as expertise in energy, intellectual property, labor and employment, business and finance, real estate and other areas.

“It’s about client service for us,” Domagalski said. “The strength of the combined firm is added depth and breadth to our practice.”

Mergers and discussions of mergers are commonplace as large firms seek ever greater scale in the competitive legal marketplace. Confirmation of a Barclay Damon merger had been expected since The Buffalo News initially reported on the talks in March.

“I’m not surprised. I think it’s the nature of the practice of law at these large firms. It’s the way business is done,” said Kevin W. Spitler, a solo general practitioner who takes over as president of the Erie County Bar Association later this month.

Damon Morey had 74 attorneys in Buffalo, where it ranked No. 3, and smaller numbers in Rochester and Clarence. Hiscock & Barclay was the No. 6 firm here, with 41 lawyers, but it was the larger firm overall, with 210 attorneys across its footprint.

John P. Langan, managing partner of Hiscock & Barclay, will remain managing partner of the combined firm that, counting support staff, will have about 500 employees.

The combined firm has main offices in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany and smaller offices in New York City, New Jersey, Boston, Toronto, Washington and the Southern Tier. Barclay Damon will be the largest law firm in upstate New York and the 159th largest in the country, based on the National Law Journal’s annual rankings from June 2014.

“I think they will be a formidable law firm, there’s no question,” said Christopher O’Brien, a personal injury attorney who is co-director of the University at Buffalo Law School’s trial advocacy program. O’Brien said Damon Morey has been a staunch supporter of the program over the years and its attorneys have a good reputation in the community.

Law firm mergers are complicated transactions because the firms are organized as partnerships of many lawyers; in Barclay Damon’s case, there are 70 equity partners.

Not every lawyer, or partner, from two merging law firms will decide to join the new firm. The combined firm also must address potential conflicts between the interests of clients represented by the merging firms and decide whether certain practice areas are a strategic fit for the new firm.

Of the 22 equity partners at Damon Morey, six are not coming over to Barclay Damon, Marlette said. Four of the Damon Morey partners have joined the Harris Beach law firm to bolster its health care practice, particularly in the area of medical malpractice.

Lawyers also frequently leave one firm to join another or to start their own practice. Last September, for example, four lawyers, including prominent business attorney William F. Savino, left Damon Morey for Woods Oviatt Gilman.

“It’s all about finding the right fit,” said O’Brien, who himself started out as a tax lawyer at Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel before changing his legal focus.

Barclay Damon partners still must figure out which of the firm’s two Buffalo office buildings the combined firm will use. 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.

The Avant space is larger and newer, but Marlette and Domagalski said there is no timetable for a decision on the move. Barclay Damon has no official headquarters location, but Buffalo will remain its largest office.

“A lot of that has to go with the growth of Buffalo. When you look across the state, what’s the area that’s growing the most? It’s the Western New York area. As we started to talk about that, it made sense for us to become a bigger firm in order to serve the growing needs of the Western New York community,” Marlette said.

The merger ends nearly a century of independence for Damon Morey, itself the product of a series of mergers over the years.

Damon Morey traces its roots back to the founding of Dudley, Stowe & Sawyer in 1917, and then to its merger with Morey, Schlenker, Murray, Steward & Beyer in 1963. That combination created Damon, Morey, Sawyer & Moot, and just Damon Morey as of 1982. The firm absorbed Diebold & Millonzi 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.

Hiscock & Barclay was founded in 1855 and has been on a two-decade growth spurt, expanding from 50 attorneys in 1995 to the 210 attorneys in practice before the merger.