Sommer Barnard merging into Cincinnati firm

Indianapolis will lose one of its largest law firms May 1 when the Cincinnati-based Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP absorbs Sommer Barnard PC.

Neither firm would confirm or deny the deal, but several sources in the local legal community say the deal will be announced today.

When reached by phone, Taft Stettinius Managing Partner Thomas Terp said, “We don’t ever comment until we’re ready to make an announcement.”

Sommer Barnard was founded in 1969 and has 103 lawyers, making it the seventh-largest in the city, according to IBJ statistics.

Taft Stettinius, whose roots date to 1885, has 200 lawyers in Cincinnati and additional Ohio offices in Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton. It has locations in Covington, Ky., and Phoenix, as well.

The merger of Sommer Barnard & Taft Stettinius continues an industry-wide trend in which regional and national firms are expanding to better serve clients with multiple locations.

Talk of a merger involving Sommer Barnard has been swirling for months, fueled by the share of ups and downs it has experienced in the past several years.

The firm acquired the Ancel & Dunlap LLP bankruptcy practice in 2001 and a year later doubled its office space by moving from Chase Tower to One Indiana. It merged with the practice of prominent Washington, D.C., trial lawyer and native Hoosier Nels Ackerson the same year to become Sommer Barnard Ackerson Attorneys PC.

But roughly 12 months later, the marriage began to crack. By the time Ackerson arrived, the corporate defense side of the business had become as large as the plaintiff work. Ackerson’s arrival and the conflict of interest it created with the growing defense practice was greater than anticipated, partners said at the time. The relationship ultimately dissolved in July 2004.

The following year, four partners were among six lawyers who jumped ship from Sommer Barnard to Bingham McHale LLP, including John Gregg, a former Democratic speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives.

And in 2007, Ginovus, the economic development consulting arm of Sommer Barnard, was forced to retrench after losing most of its professional staff to Bingham McHale, which had launched its own economic development consulting practice.

Recently, Sommer Barnard and Taft Stettinius had worked together on at least one occasion. Lawyers for both firms jointly filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Virginia-based Center for Equal Opportunity and Project 21 supporting Indiana’s voter ID law. Justices ruled in favor of the state yesterday.

Perhaps one of the more telling examples that something was amiss at Sommer Barnard was the resignation of its chief operating officer, Debra Marple, early this month.

Sources say no layoffs are expected but competing firms undoubtedly will be angling to “cherry pick” lawyers who may not want to remain through the transition.

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