How to Handle a Merger

Bill Lee knew it was grow or languish for his firm, but the waters he had to navigate were filled with sharks

Published in 2004 Massachusetts Super Lawyers — November 2004

During his 30-year career, William “Bill” Lee’s path has carried him from the Iran-Contra investigations of the 1980s to the management of a major law firm. But no decision came harder than Lee’s recent resolution to lead his firm into a merger. In May 2004, Hale and Dorr, for which Lee had served as managing partner for the previous four years, joined with Wilmer Cutler Pickering of Washington, D.C., creating a combined entity of more than a thousand lawyers with greater than $700 million in annual revenues.

“It meant taking a century-old institution that was vibrant and healthy, and assuming a risk based on hope and expectation,” Lee explains. The risk was necessary, he says, because Hale and Dorr could remain competitive only by ratcheting up its national presence. Before the merger, the firm was, he believes, “a very fine regional firm with a few national practice areas.” By 2010, Lee realized, the firm would need attorneys working at the highest levels of proficiency in virtually every area of practice. Although Lee had a plan to accomplish that growth without a merger, some projects done in collaboration with Wilmer Cutler Pickering and its managing partner, William Perlstein, convinced Lee that the complementary cultures of the two firms would produce a smoothrunning and powerful legal family.

Lee, 54, knows something about family cultures that work. He is the son of immigrants named Thomas and Kin Ping Lee. When his father arrived in the U.S. in 1948, Chinese immigrants could not obtain American citizenship, and Lee’s parents were unable to buy their house without obtaining the neighbors’ approval to override a restrictive property covenant. In response, the Lees determined to overcome these obstacles through exercise of brains and character. His father, who became an internationally known scientist and teacher, “was a bright, hardworking guy, as honest as the day is long, who treated everyone with respect and collegiality,” Lee says. It’s no coincidence that Lee echoes his father’s qualities in his own aspiration to be viewed “as a nice person of integrity and character who treats everybody with respect.”

Lee simultaneously received his J.D. degree from Cornell Law School and an MBA degree from Cornell Business School. Lee joined Hale and Dorr in 1976, but from 1987 through 1989, he was involved in the Iran-Contra investigation, serving as an associate counsel responsible for parts of the grand-jury investigation and the indictments that followed. (Asked how much he believes President Ronald Reagan knew of the arms-for-hostages scheme, Lee politely refuses to say.) In 1996, he became chair of Hale and Dorr’s litigation department.

Now Lee co-manages Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr with Perlstein, who is based in Washington, D.C. Lee remains dedicated to his firm and fiercely attached to his family, a dual loyalty that he admits leaves little time for other interests. He has made a point of attending his daughters’ soccer matches and swim meets, even when those events take place mid-week. “He is very even-keeled, except when he thinks someone has treated his children or family poorly,” explains his 22-year-old daughter Maggie. Supporting his family — including his family of lawyers — is the story of Bill Lee’s life.

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