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August 5, 2008 2:25 PM

Europe's Taylor Wessing Sues Nixon Peabody For Poaching Partners

Posted by Zach Lowe

U.K.-Germany based Taylor Wessing has filed suit against Nixon Peabody, accusing the Manhattan law firm of colluding with the former managing partner of Taylor's Paris office to "raid" its partner ranks after merger talks between the two firms fell through.

Taylor's legal team at Dreier, including name partner Marc Dreier, says Nixon's alleged attempts to poach 12 of Taylor's 15 nonequity French partners violated a July 2007 agreement in which the two firms promised not to recruit from each other for two years if merger talks collapsed.

Dreier declined to comment when reached by phone. Taylor is seeking an injunction to prevent the partners from moving to Nixon and $5 million in damages for breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty on the part of ex-managing partner Arnaud de Senilhes.

Nixon Peabody is arguing that the end of the merger talks terminated the prior agreement. They have filed a separate complaint in New York trial court in Monroe County seeking a declaratory judgment in their favor. A combined team from the Wolford Law Firm and Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler is representing Nixon.

The two firms began merger talks in July 2007, but those talks fell apart for reasons that are unclear from the complaint filed Friday in New York trial court in Manhattan. (Download Complaint) In November 2007 Arnaud de Senilhes, former managing partner of Taylor's Paris office, wrote a letter to Nixon saying Taylor was no longer interested in a merger. "We do not intend to continue at this stage with any discussions that we have had with Nixon," de Senilhes allegedly wrote.

That's when, according to the complaint, the poaching began. De Senilhes "surreptitiously continued negotiations" with Taylor's partners about leaving en masse for Nixon. Dreier's complaint says 12 have agreed to move, but only de Senilhes has resigned.

De Senilhes told a different story Monday in a Monroe courtroom. The letter ending the merger talks also quashed the agreement banning recruitment between the firms for two years, he declared, adding that Taylor's non-equity partners were ready to move because they were fed up with the refusal among Taylor's five equity partners to share any equity in firm. The non-equity lawyers also were upset that the equity partners had pursued merger talks without first discussing the idea firm-wide. "They were vigorously opposed to the idea that management of the firm might enter into any agreement that would in any way limit their independence and professional freedom to work where they chose," de Senilhes said. (Download de Senilhes Declaration)

De Senilhes could not be reached for comment. He is not listed on either firm's Web site, and a receptionist at Taylor said she did not know how to reach him. The firm named a new managing partner for its Paris office in mid-June, according to The Lawyer, and according to that report, de Senilhes was to continue practicing with the firm.

Taylor Wessing has 750 lawyers and 12 offices throughout Europe as well as one in Shanghai; the Paris office numbers 55 attorneys. De Senilhes formed the French firm with four other founders in 2003 and quickly affiliated with the Taylor Wessing firms around Europe.

Things are likely to get uglier. Nixon has accused Taylor Wessing of "patent gamesmanship" by attempting to move the case to Manhattan. The Nixon team says the case has no standing in Manhattan and has accused Dreier of adding New York managing partner Richard Langan, Jr. as a defendant to gain standing in Manhattan. Taylor and Dreier, in turn, have said Nixon used the address of its Rochester office to file the complaint in Monroe and gain a "home-field advantage."

According to a statement from spokeswoman Allison McClain,  Nixon Peabody is confident it will prevail. "Nixon Peabody looks forward to working with a team of partners from Taylor Wessing France as we expand our international presence to better serve our clients and seek new opportunities in Europe," the statement says. "Taylor Wessing France has aggressively tried to prevent partners from leaving to work with Nixon Peabody, by improperly relying on an agreement Taylor Wessing terminated nine months ago."

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