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Ballard Saphr expands white-collar defense work, acquires Stillman & Friedman

By Casey Sullivan

(Reuters) - New York litigation boutique Stillman & Friedman, whose clients have included famous Wall Street moneymen and government lawyers, is being acquired by the large law firm Ballard Spahr, according to the firms' leaders.

The acquisition underlines how white-collar criminal defense work is increasingly becoming a growing practice at large law firms.

Stillman & Friedman founding partner Charles Stillman said in an interview on Sunday that his entire firm, which consists of nine partners, two counsel and three associates specializing in white collar criminal defense, commercial and civil litigation, will join Ballard Spahr on Monday and retain their titles and level of compensation.

The firm is known in New York for its recent representation of former UBS global head of commodities Peter Ghavami against charges that he rigged bids to invest in municipal bond proceeds and deceived American cities and towns, charges which he was found guilty of last year by a federal jury Manhattan.

Other firm clients have included Clark Clifford, a former defense secretary later charged in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International scandal and Mark Swartz, the former chief financial officer of Tyco, who served prison time after being convicted of bilking his former employer for millions.

The acquisition, which was approved in a vote by Ballard Spahr lawyers late last week, reflects the most recent example of an ongoing trend in the legal industry of large law firms seeking to tap into the lucrative business of representing corporate executives facing scandal and government scrutiny.

The trend has been growing over the past two decades as Fortune 500 companies have increasingly globalized and face complex regulatory compliance issues under laws like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

As a result, big law firms that have established successful white-collar criminal defense practices like Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and Dechert have been called upon to conduct internal investigations of companies, advise them on compliance issues and defend Wall Street financiers and businessmen during scandals.

"In the early days, handling these kinds of cases was something that the big firms had no interest in," said Stillman & Friedman leader Charles Stillman in an interview. "The world changed as the investigations became bigger.

"What happened is that big firms saw this field ... and realized that they should not be afraid to step in and handle these kinds of cases," he said.

Ballard Spahr, which staffs more than 500 lawyers and is headquartered in Philadelphia, is just the most recent example of a long list of other big firms that have sought to bolster their white-collar criminal defense practices recently.

Earlier this month, the large Chicago law firm Winston & Strawn, known best for its strong litigation practices, recruited famed criminal defense attorney Gerald Shargel who had been working at his own small firm and represented Mafia bosses and corrupt politicians.

In August, the Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton acquired former FBI Director and MF Global Trustee Louis Freeh's investigations firm before promoting him to become chairman in February. The firm then recruited a group of five white-collar lawyers from Linklaters.

Ballard Spahr, which staffs 26 lawyers in its white-collar practice in Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Diego, had been eying the New York market for the past several years instead because of its real estate and litigation work in the city, according to the firm's chairman Mark Stewart.

But Stewart said that "the white collar area is an area that is of particular interest for us because it's a growing area".

Under the terms of the acquisition, the new law firm will be called Ballard Spahr Stillman & Friedman for two years, and then the firm's name may or may not change.

As his own reason for the move, Stillman, 75, said that many of his firm's lawyers were in their fifties and sixties and that he wanted to ensure the future stability of their practices and make sure that they land safely at a large firm during this late stage of his career.

"Nothing is forever," said Stillman. "So I felt it was important and they felt it was important to find the right place to build the bridge to the future."

(Reporting By Casey Sullivan)

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