Energy regulations prompt law firm merger
By Catherine Ho,
Bruder, Gentile & Marcoux, a small Washington law firm that represents Pepco, Dominion and other regional gas and electric utilities in energy regulatory matters, has been absorbed by mid-size Chicago firm Schiff Hardin, the firms announced last week.
The combination doubles the size of Schiff Hardin’s energy practice to 20 lawyers from 10 in Washington, and is the latest reshuffling in the legal industry as law firms look to bulk up their energy practices to capture work from electricity, gas and oil companies bracing for more stringent energy regulations expected during the second Obama administration.
“The electric utility and gas industry is looking at a lot of change,” said Sherry Quirk, partner in charge of Schiff Hardin’s energy group. “The energy area is hot and we expect it to be expanding. We felt bringing them in would expand our reach and capabilities.”
Quirk, who initiated merger talks last fall with Bruder, Gentile & Marcoux partner Tom Blackburn, said she expects that new rules on greenhouse gas emissions may mean coal-burning power plants will give way to renewable energy sources — a transition that will mean new work for energy lawyers.
Schiff Hardin has about 400 attorneys in nine U.S. offices. Bruder, Gentile & Marcoux was a 10-attorney firm founded in the District in 1976 and specialized in issues before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates electricity, natural gas and oil companies.
FERC work can be a sought-after specialty at full-service law firms. Though FERC expertise is not typically a huge revenue driver to a law firm, it can play a critical role in a firm’s energy practice because the agency oversees expensive litigation involving utilities, regulates disputes over rate-setting and reviews some mergers and acquisitions by electricity companies.
“It’s an aspect of the energy practice that law firms around the country feel that they need,” said Steve Nelson, managing principal for the law and government affairs groups at the McCormick Group. “If you don’t have FERC capability, you may not be able to get a lot of work that you’re looking for.”
Bruder, Gentile & Marcoux was one of the few remaining energy boutique firms in Washington that represent a broad range of corporate energy clients, Nelson said.
Carmen Gentile, one of the founding partners of Bruder, Gentile & Marcoux, said becoming part of Schiff Hardin would help his firm diversify and expand its platform.
“What makes the merger attractive to me is the combination with a firm that has excellent lawyers in areas that complement our practice,” he said. “For example, working before FERC, tax issues come up. Having tax lawyers to use as a resource will help me do the work I do better in the future.”
The combination also signals the growing difficulty some boutique firms are facing to compete in a legal market where even top tier full-service firms are vying for work as corporations keep more legal work in-house.
“It’s getting harder to be a boutique in the market because corporate clients are focused on having stronger relationships with fewer firms,” Nelson said. “Boutiques don’t have a lot of critical mass, and they don’t have a corporate practice that’s going to draw in new clients. Without a merger, it’s a challenging road ahead.”