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June 13, 2008 6:18 PM

Ropes Lures Longtime Wilmer Cutler Heavy Hitter

Posted by Zach Lowe

Update: The  following story, originally posted on Thursday, includes information from additional reporting conducted today.

In a major score for Ropes & Gray, Joan Lukey, considered one of the nation's preeminent trial lawyers, will join the firm's litigation department after nearly 34 years at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr.

"We are truly honored that Joan will be joining our litigation group," says Ropes & Gray managing partner John Montgomery.

Lukey, 58, has tried more than 70 cases in federal and state courts. She is a past president of the Boston Bar Association and the president-elect of the American College of Trial Lawyers--the first woman to hold that position.

William Lee, Wilmer Hale's co-managing partner, says this is the first time "in recent memory" that a Boston-based partner from either of these two Boston rivals has defected to the other.

Several local recruiters say such a move may be unprecedented. "It just doesn't happen," says Elizabeth Macari, managing director of Mestel & Company recruiting.

That's bound to change, according to Lee. "It's historically been very rare," he says, "but with the nationalization of both firms it's probably going to happen more."

Lukey and Montgomery have been friends since both attended Boston College Law School in the early 1970s, but Montgomery waited until very recently to try and lure her to his firm, Lukey says. At a dinner about a month ago, Montgomery told Lukey she could play a crucial role as Ropes increases its focus on complex commercial litigation, she says.

But Lukey demurred; she was happy at Wilmer Hale and had not been looking to leave. A few days later, Montgomery enlisted William Shakespeare's help. Both lawyers were tapped for roles in a May 21 production of King Lear produced by the Boston Lawyers chapter of the Federalist Society, part of the chapter's annual "Shakespeare and the Law" event. Lukey played the part of Cordelia. Montgomery's role was the King of France, the noble despot who sweeps Cordelia off her feet after Lear takes away her dowry and her greedy fiancé dumps her.

In the lawyers' final scene, in which the King of France and Cordelia stroll off the stage with hands clasped, Montgomery slipped an envelope into Lukey's hand. Inside was a contract. "That really pushed me over the edge," she says,  laughing.

The contract allows for Lukey to devote time to the ACTL and to occasionally work from New York City, where her daughter will soon start law school, she says.

Lukey chose not to ask Wilmer Cutler for a counter-offer, she says. "I just thought for once in my
professional life it was time for a change." Most of her current clients--including best-selling crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, Brown University, and industrial vision equipment manufacturer Cognex--have agreed to move with her, including about 18 with pending cases.

Lukey won a 2007 libel verdict for Cornwell against an Internet-based writer who accused Cornwell of stealing his work and being an anti-Semite. In 2005, she won a $2 million libel verdict against The Boston Globe on behalf of a doctor the paper wrongly claimed was partly responsible for the death of a Globe health columnist.

A First Amendment and complex commercial litigation specialist, Lukey was one of The National Law Journal's top 50 female litigators in 1999. Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly named her one of the 35 most influential judges and lawyers in the state over the last 35 years.

She will join Ropes & Gray on June 17.

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