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April 14, 2011 6:30 PM

Carolina Combo: Womble Carlyle Merges with 44-Lawyer Charleston Firm

Posted by Brian Baxter

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The widening of the Panama Canal is scheduled for completion in 2014, and ports along the east coast of the United States, including those in South Carolina, stand to see more business.

That's just one of the reasons why 500-lawyer Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice has been looking to expand its presence in the Palmetto State. The Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Am Law 200 firm announced on Thursday that it had acquired 44-lawyer Buist Moore Smythe McGee, one of the oldest and largest firms in Charleston, S.C.

The merger, which will be effective April 30, creates the largest firm in the Carolinas. Womble Carlyle chairman Keith Vaughan says that merger talks between the two firms began last August. He cites a common culture at both firms as one of the attractions of the merger. New business opportunities figure into the equation as well.

"There's a lot of business activity moving towards the southeastern part of the U.S.," Vaughan says. "We are very strong in Greenville, S.C., on the western side of the state along the I-85 corridor from Atlanta on up to Charlotte, but we had no presence in Charleston."

As the largest firm in North Carolina, Vaughan says, Womble Carlyle had been looking for a way to expand outside the manufacturing center of Greenville in order to cater to client needs elsewhere. The firm is betting that the Charleston economy will grow, thanks to Boeing's decision two years ago to relocate some of its plants to the region. The Seattle-based company, the world's second-largest commercial jet manufacturer, plans on building its 787 Dreamliner series in the Charleston area.

Suppliers and new jobs will likely follow once Boeing's aircraft assembly line becomes operational in the next few months. Vaughan hopes that the economic impact will be similar to BMW opening its only U.S. production facility near Greenville in 1994.

And then there's the Panana Canal project, slated for completion in three years. "That's going to result in a lot of increased activity in the Charleston port area," Vaughan says. "There's going to be a lot of goods that move directly from the Far East, straight through the canal, and up through the East Coast ports."

The Port of Charleston is the fourth-busiest container port in the U.S., according to its Web site, handling more than $3 million in cargo every hour from more than 140 countries around the world. The city is trying to secure federal funds to study deepening its port, a process that has been the subject of some political wrangling in Washington, D.C.

Buist Moore was founded in 1970 as part of a merger between Charleston's two oldest firms--Buist, Buist, Smythe & Smythe and Moore, Mouzon & McGee. The combined firm, which only has one office in Charleston, is the largest in the city. Buist Moore does both transactional and litigation work, but is also known for its admiralty and maritime legal expertise.

Henry Smythe, Jr., the firm's managing director, did not respond to a request for comment by the time of this story. (Smythe did speak with South Carolina Lawyers Weekly, which first had news of the firm's combination with Womble Carlyle.)

Womble Carlyle's Vaughan says that Buist Moore's Charleston office will be absorbed into his firm. The merger will add between 20 to 30 partners to Womble Carlyle's ranks, Vaughan says, with some joining as equity and some as nonequity partners.

Vaughan says that his firm did not use a legal consultant in negotiating the merger. Buist Moore has enjoyed a longtime relationship with Thomas Clay, a principal with legal consultancy Altman Weil. Clay did not immediately respond to a request for comment about his role.

Womble Carlyle engaged in merger talks with Powell Goldstein in early 2008, but that firm chose to merge with Bryan Cave later that year. Vaughan says that Womble Carlyle is looking at possible expansion in South Carolina's capital city of Columbia, too. "But that's a decision for another day," he adds.

According to the most recent financial data from The American Lawyer, Womble Carlyle had $266 million in gross revenue in 2010. The firm had profits per partner of $633,000 and revenue per lawyer of $586,000.

The firm's merger with Buist Moore is the latest sign of consolidation in the Carolina legal market. In 2008 K&L Gates acquired Charlotte-firm Kennedy Covington Lobdell & Hickman. The next year saw South Carolina firm Nexsen Pruet merge with Cary, N.C.-based Sanford Holshouser.

 

Photo: iStockphoto/AdShooter

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