We’ve got a story up on Cal Law tonight that looks at the day that really killed Heller Ehrman — the mid-September Friday when the Mayer Brown merger fell through. As the accompanying American Lawyer story makes clear, that was the last of a series of turning points that left the 118-year-old Heller with no more options.
While the Mayer talks collapsed a day or two after a 14-attorney team of IP lawyers left Heller for Covington & Burling, Mayer was also watching a lot of its Wall Street client base stagger through one of the worst weeks in big finance history. Since Heller voted to dissolve on Sept. 26, many online commenters and people we’ve talked to privately have speculated that the “Covington group,” led by partners Robert Fram and Robert Haslam, killed Heller with their “sudden” departure on the eve of the merger’s consummation.
Today, a source familiar with Heller management’s dealing with the Fram/Haslam group told us what we’d heard before, that the IP group’s intentions to leave had been made clear to Heller way ahead of the Covington announcement and that Mayer Brown, supposedly, was told of this as well. The source wasn't sure about the exact timeline, but was clear that the group was forthright about its plans.
We got ahold of Bob Haslam, and in an email exchange, got his take on timing of the Covington move and Heller’s collapse, and on the reaction that surrounded it. He started by saying his group’s intentions were clearly voiced in August.
“I was not on the policy committee, but had been added sometime in the spring to a larger group to deal with merger-related issues,” he wrote. “I resigned from that committee at the same time as Mr. Fram. I told the firm management at that time that I did not support the direction the firm was taking and was considering other options.
“On Sept. 2, I reiterated to firm management that I was leaving the firm,” he continued. “I re-reiterated that in no uncertain terms at the end of that week.”
Haslam emphasized that he hadn’t, in those early September conversations, been in a position to speak for the other attorneys who ended up going to Covington. “However, I did tell firm management that I thought that no matter what I did, the San Diego and DC groups were going to leave.”
Haslam noted that, in the sudden and shocking dissolution that followed the Mayer deal’s evaporation, the lead Covington lawyers were seen by some as traitors.
“When I informed the firm of my feelings and intentions in August, I was asked not to make them public, for obvious reasons, which I agreed with,” he told us. “I now find myself excoriated by some for allegedly pulling the rug out from under the firm. That is not the case.”
We've had conversations with some who still blame the Covington group fully, but others corroborate the Covington group’s perspective. Years of management decisions had gotten Heller to the brink of collapse. Handicapping how much the loss of the IP group, the fact that their departure finally triggered a bank clause that effectively killed the firm’s line of credit, or the chaos of the melting Wall Street economy played a part in the talks’ failure remains impossible: the only people who can say for sure why the talks ended are in management at Mayer Brown and they're not talking.
— Niraj Chokshi