Ballard Spahr Acquires NY First Amendment Boutique

In the latest addition to its growing media practice, Philadelphia’s Ballard Spahr is set to acquire the 25-lawyer first amendment law boutique, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz.

Earlier this summer, in June, the firm added Charles Tobin, a former Holland & Knight partner and in-house lawyer for Gannett, as co-chair of its national media and entertainment practice, based in Washington, D.C.

Firmwide chairman Mark Stewart said the practice group, which primarily represents corporate media companies in various litigation, will have about 10 partners in total and aims to establish itself as the premiere first amendment practice in the country. Lawyers at both firms listed a number of factors that have increased media companies’ need for legal counsel: they face greater scrutiny from the public and politicians; access to information from the government is increasingly being blocked under the current Presidential administration; journalists’ right to protect confidential sources is increasingly being threatened.

“We are seeing more high profile libel lawsuits than in recent years, and the ability to secure access to information continues to be more difficult,” said David Bodney, who co-chairs the practice group with Tobin. “Reporters are being subpoenaed like never before and consequently it’s important to be able to represent our clients.”

The combination with LSKS, the moniker that the boutique often used, is not effective until Oct. 1, and it follows Ballard Spahr’s announcement last week that it is combining with the 170-lawyer Minneapolis-based firm Lindquist & Vennum in January 2018.

Together, the two mergers will bring Ballard Spahr’s total headcount to about 675 lawyers including about 280 partners, according to Stewart.

“One of the things I discussed with my partners … was, can you really do both [mergers]?” Stewart said. “Can you integrate that deal and this deal? My answer was yes we can do it.”

Because the rate structure fits and the founders are joining, the combination made sense, he explained.

With LSKS, Ballard Spahr brings on a firm with four offices — in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Denver — all in locations where Ballard Spahr is already based. Its clients have included the New York Times, CNN, NBC, ABC and Yahoo in addition to book publishers, NGOs and advertisers.

The firm recently gained attention when its lawyers persuaded a federal judge in New York to dismiss a defamation suit that Sarah Palin filed against the New York Times, for publishing an editorial that linked the former Alaskan governor and gun violence.

Lee Levine, a co-founder and name partner of LSKS, who is joining Ballard Spahr as senior counsel, said his firm had been looking to combine with a larger firm with more resources in recent years. He cited President Trump, who at one point said he was going to open up libel laws, and who has blocked journalists’ access to information, as a precipitating factor.

“It has just become increasingly clear to us since November, not to put too fine a point on it, that to represent our clients most effectively, we really needed a bigger platform,” Levine said.

He said he and others at his firm have known Bodney and Tobin for years and saw a like-minded approach to the way they practiced law and marketed themselves. They also knew Charles Stillman, a white collar lawyer and co-managing partner of Ballard Spahr’s New York office, who will help represent journalist clients who are subpoenaed in criminal investigations and asked to divulge information about their confidential sources, Levine said.

The core of the firm’s practice is defending media companies against defamation and libel lawsuits, Freedom of Information and other public information lawsuit, copyright and trademark as well as protecting journalists who report classified information from potential criminal liablity, Levine said.

“The legal challenges that our clients in the media now face are very real and much more serious than they’ve been at any time in the 35 years that I’ve been practicing law,” Levine said. “I guess the best way to put this is in Game of Thrones’ parlance — winter is here.”

— Casey Sullivan contributed reporting to this story. 

Write to the reporter at gabefriedman@outlook.com.

Write to the editor at csullivan@bloomberglaw.com.

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