The Firms

October 3, 2011 4:28 PM

Urge to Merge: Law Firm Tie-Ups Rose Nearly 80 Percent in 2011's First Three Quarters

Posted by Brian Baxter

With 14 deals announced between the start of July and the end of September, merger and acquisition activity in the law firm sector remained robust, legal consultant Altman Weil said Monday. And the fourth quarter appears to be off to a healthy start as well.

The 14 third-quarter transactions brought the total number of law firm deals so far this year to 43, a 78 percent increase over the relatively small number of mergers that the industry saw in 2010. Earlier this year, Altman Weil found that small firm acquisitions were driving much of the merger market in 2011.

"It looks like the law firm merger market is back," Altman Weil principal Ward Bower said in a statement. "This is the fourth strong quarter in a row we've seen, and we're aware of a lot of activity in the pipeline."

Among the notable mergers announced during the third quarter: Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge's union with Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon to create 650-lawyer Edwards Wildman Palmer in a deal that  became official Saturday.

Other prominent deals announced over the past three months include Ice Miller's acquisition of 90 lawyers from Ohio's Schottenstein Zox & Dunn; Jones Walker's move into Mississippi with the addition of a 67-lawyer local firm, and McKool Smith's merger with Los Angeles litigation and bankruptcy boutique Hennigan Dorman.

Altman Weil notes that regional expansion was a motivating factor behind many of the deals, with 11 of the third-quarter combinations involving acquisitions of firms with 35 or fewer lawyers. Polsinelli Shughart, for instance, picked up 13 lawyers in late August from former Denver boutique Hensley Kim, some two months after launching a Los Angeles office by acquiring L.A. boutique Quateman.

The fourth quarter is also shaping up to be an active one.

On Monday, 200-lawyer Roetzel & Andress announced that it has added eight lawyers—six of them partners—through its acquisition of Chicago's Lewis, Overbeck & Furman, which specializes in employee benefits and estate-planning work.

Also announced over the weekend: the acquisition of 15-lawyer litigation boutique Eldridge Cooper Steichen & Leach in Tulsa by 167-lawyer McAfee & Taft, Oklahoma's largest law firm. McAfee & Taft opened in Tulsa in 2008, according to the Tulsa World, which reports that since then the firm has been active on the local merger market.

The move by McAfee & Taft follows the decision earlier this year by Oklahoma City–based Crowe & Dunlevy and Day, Edwards, Propester & Christensen to join forces and create a 140-lawyer firm that is one of McAfee & Taft's largest Sooner State rivals.

Elsewhere in the heartland, partners at Baker & Daniels and Faegre & Benson are expected to vote this month on a proposed merger. The firms confirmed to The Am Law Daily in August that they were holding formal tie-up talks.

Meanwhile, one of the world's largest firms appears poised to get even bigger. SNR Denton global chief executive Elliott Portnoy—who helped spearhead predecessor firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal's merger with British firm Denton Wilde Sapte in September 2010—recently told oil and gas trade publication Fuel Fix that his firm is eyeing a merger partner in Houston. (Sonnenschein ranked seventy-fourth in gross revenue and ninety-third in attorney head count in the latest version of The American Lawyer's Global 100.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, law firm merger activity is also picking up overseas.

Major British firm Ashurst—whose merger talks with Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson were delayed and then scuttled eight years agoannounced late last month that it has struck a deal with leading Australian firm Blake Dawson to complete a tie-up by 2014.

Squire, Sanders & Dempsey officially launched in Western Australia this week after raiding Minter Ellison's Perth office in August. Ongoing alliance talks between another top Aussie firm, Mallesons Stephen Jaques and leading Chinese domestic firm King & Wood, could be put to a partnership vote in November, according to U.K. publication Legal Week.

Legal Week also reports that British firm Eversheds is set to enter the Romanian legal market through a deal with four-partner local firm Lina & Guia, which is based in Bucharest. Eversheds is keen on Romania as a base from which to push into markets in Central and Eastern Europe.

The American Lawyer's chief European correspondent Chris Johnson reports in the magazine's October issue on Clyde & Co pulling off the largest law firm merger ever in the United Kingdom via its combination with insurance law rival Barlow Lyde & Gilbert, which had held preliminary tie-up talks with Bryan Cave.

For more recent merger news from The Am Law Daily:

Strasburger & Price Scoops Up 30-Lawyer San Antonio Firm, 9/6/11

Florida's Fowler White Boggs Merges with Fort Lauderdale Firm, 8/25/11

Dorsey & Whitney Inks Alliance with Chinese Firm, 8/23/11

Fox Rothschild Adds Three IP Lawyers by Snapping Up L.A. Boutique, 8/23/11

Ailing Florida Firm in Merger Talks with Ohio Shop, 8/22/11



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