The American Lawyer reports that 2019 was a record-breaking year for law firm merger announcements and represented a “solid year of growth” for completed mergers, according to recent data collected by two legal industry consultancy firms tracking law firm tie-ups. Altman Weil, which tracks law firm merger announcements, announced that last year’s 115 combinations broke the record set by the U.S. legal industry in 2018, which saw 106 announcements. Additionally, another report by legal consultancy firm Fairfax Associates, which counts combinations once they are completed, announced that firms completed 59 mergers in 2019. While this is lower than the 71 mergers counted in 2018, it is still higher than the historical average of 54 mergers per year recorded between 2009 and 2018, Fairfax notes.
Two of the largest merger announcements from 2019 took effect the first day of the new year: Taft—the result of Cincinnati-based Taft Stettinius & Hollister merging with Minneapolis-based Briggs & Morgan—and Lathrop GPM, the offspring of Kansas City, Missouri-based Lathrop Gage and Minneapolis-based Gray Plant Mooty. Aside from Taft and Lathrop GPM, ten more law firm mergers are scheduled to close in the first quarter of 2020, Fairfax reports. This includes Dentons’ combinations with Indianapolis-based Bingham Greenebaum Doll and Pittsburgh-based Cohen & Grigsby as well as the pending marriage of Minneapolis-based Faegre Baker Daniels and Philadelphia-based Drinker Biddle & Reath, (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
The majority of mergers in 2019 continued to be small combinations, with eighty-five percent of the mergers involved firms between five and 20 lawyers, Fairfax reports. “We are continuing to see firms anywhere from 100 lawyers to 600 to 700 lawyers feel like they need more scale in order to compete effectively,” notes Lisa Smith, a principal at Fairfax Associates. “I think we’ll continue to see consolidation in the form of laterals and groups or small acquisitions or mergers of equal size. Consolidation is going to continue to be big in 2020,” she adds. Additionally, Zeughauser Group consultant Kent Zimmermann notes law firms are competing hard for talent. Deciding to scale up and merge can give a law firm a deeper bench and greater revenue, which can mitigate and ward off the poaching of top talent by other firms, (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
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The American Lawyer reports that as 2018 came to a close, it was on pace to become the busiest year ever for law firm mergers, surpassing a record set in 2017. According to a recent report by legal consultancy firm Fairfax Associates, last year’s tally of 72 completed mergers was the highest since 2001. The report revealed that the 72 mergers completed in the past year was up from 65 in 2017 and easily outpaced the historical average of 52 mergers per year from 2008 to 2017.
Within the U.S., New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, Missouri and California proved to be the most desirable locations for firms looking to grow through mergers. Nine New York firms were absorbed into larger firms, according to Fairfax, while there were six mergers involving smaller firms in Florida, five mergers apiece in Pennsylvania, Texas and Missouri, and four mergers in California, (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
Fairfax principal Lisa Smith notes that there continues to be a lot of interest in combinations that transcend national boundaries. According to Smith, the past year was also a busy one for international mergers, thanks in good measure to Dentons’ continuing eagerness to add on new units. The firm’s eight cross-border mergers completed in 2018 accounted for more than half of the 15 counted by Fairfax, (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
Other major completed cross-border combinations included Bryan Cave with Berwin Leighton Paisner in London, DLA Piper with Delacour in Denmark and with Noguera Larrain & Dulanto in Chile, Eversheds Sutherland with Dvorak Hager & Partners in Prague, and Littler Mendelson with Reliance in Belgium and with CLINT in the Netherlands, (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
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The American Lawyer reports on a mistaken and dangerous belief pervading the current U.S. legal market: that it is consolidating as larger firms grow more quickly than the market by taking share from their smaller rivals. However, an in-depth analysis of Am Law data over the last 20 years reveals that in fact consolidation is not happening. Rather, worldwide revenue growth from larger firms expanding overseas has been mistaken for consolidation of market share.
In Am Law’s latest article, Debunking the Consolidation Myth, the authors argue that the mistaken perception of consolidation has driven firms to bulk up—by merging, acquiring and hiring laterally—to avoid being at a competitive disadvantage. Such moves are high-risk, disruptive distractions for leaders whose attention is better focused elsewhere. Despite the intense effort involved, they create no strategic advantage. Wise partner groups and firm leaders will see past the prevailing dogma and focus instead on optimizing the performance of organically growing businesses, (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
In a tightly argued analysis, the authors conclude that “Consolidation is not happening. The imperative for law firms to grow is groundless. Smaller firms that don’t expand internationally are not losing share; in fact, they’ve gained share through the Great Recession. The data could not be clearer. And yet we know that this simple truth will be ignored. Facts are an ineffective counterweight to long-held belief. It’s too bad. Running a U.S.-centered, organically growing law firm well is a strategy with enormous validity and tremendous potential for strong profit growth.”
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Law firm mergers remained robust during the first quarter of 2018, with a strong outlook for cross-border combinations, according to a recent report by legal consultancy firm Fairfax Associates. In the first quarter of 2018, Fairfax tracked 20 completed mergers, which counts combinations once they are completed. According to the report, this number is slightly lower than the 22 mergers completed during the same time last year, however, is still on par with historical averages.
Despite a fairly quiet cross-border merger market in the first few months of 2018, Fairfax principal Lisa Smith notes that there continues to be a lot of interest in combinations that transcend national boundaries. “We see an awful lot of interest from particularly U.K. firms continuing to look at the U.S. market, but U.S. firms also continuing to look at their international strategies,” Smith said. “I think that’s a continuing big trend,” (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
On the domestic front, many mergers completed within the first quarter were smaller or at the regional level. Nearly 75 percent of the firms involved had between five and 20 lawyers, according to Fairfax, with the largest purely domestic tie-up being between Ballard Spahr and Minneapolis-based Lindquist & Vennum, a union that became effective on Jan. 2. “We see a mix of a lot of smaller firm acquisitions, many of which are smaller mid-sized firms combining with other smaller mid-sized firms,” Smith said (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
Contact Bill Sugarman for more information.
Last year saw the dissolution of several high-profile firm mergers, yet still boasted a record 91 successful law firm amalgamations (Altman Weil). However, closely following the recent termination of merger talks between Greenberg Traurig and London’s Berwin Leighton Paisner, consultancy Gulland Padfield released the results of a study claiming that the “majority of law firm mergers fail to deliver benefits to clients and risk damaging partnership value,” (as reported by The American Lawyer).
James Edsberg, a partner at Gulland Padfield, says that while mergers can be “genuinely transformational…the majority of the law firms only do it if they absolutely have to,” (as quoted in The American Lawyer). The report found that many mergers fail because of the “lack of a coherent plan to capitalize on the combined client relationships,” being instead too focused on the purely operational aspects of the integration (The American Lawyer). Edsberg adds that the “litmus test of any merger should be whether the combined firm can bring value to clients in a way that the old firms couldn’t on their own,” (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
Read more on the report and see the indicators of a good merger here.
The “vast majority” of lawyers and staff from Houston-based IP boutique Novack Druce Connolly Bove & Quigg will be absorbed into the fast-growing Polsinelli, according to recent reports by The American Lawyer.
Polsinelli chairman and CEO Russell Welsh told The American Lawyer that acquisition by Polsinelli, which currently has just over 700 attorneys, will enhance their already “robust IP practice,” especially in the burgeoning area of post-grant patent reviews (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
Novak Druce, which had 140 attorneys in 2012, has been losing “a stream of partners to competitors,” The American Lawyer reports, including Drinker Biddle, Reed Smith, and Dykema Gossett. This mirrors the ongoing trend for intellectual property boutiques in the recent years, many of which have been struggling and have since been absorbed into or have had partners taken by mid-sized, full-service firms like Polsinelli.
Ranked the fast-growing firm for the seventh year in the row, Polsinelli has experienced continued success in their expansion efforts, with revenue rising 11.4 percent in 2015 (The American Lawyer). Their now-proven strategy is to concentrate growth in low overhead markets in order to compete for health care work and other “price-sensitive assignments.” Todd Dickinson of Novack Druce’s executive committee agrees with their method, telling The American Lawyer that Polsinelli utilizes a “Midwest sensibility about rates that’s client friendly.”
Finding a foothold in the Chicago market isn’t as easy for the elite ‘big law’ firms as they might like to believe, reports Claire Bushey of Crain’s Chicago.
The article looks at three national firms that had big aspirations for growth upon their respective moves to Chicago: Paul Hastings, Ropes & Gray, and Morgan Lewis & Bockius. New York-based Paul Hastings, for example, opened its Chicago doors in 2006, initially recruiting top partner talent and reporting goals of a 100+ lawyer office. Ten years later, the office boasts of only 42 attorneys. Former managing partner of the office, Rick Chesley, says that its the tough Chicago competition that forces firms to really consider their client base: “If you haven’t thought about who your clients are, who you’re going to compete with…you’re going to fail,” he said (as quoted in Crain’s).
Similarly, Boston-based Ropes & Gray opened eight years ago with predictions of a 100-lawyer headcount within two years. The Chicago office has only 64 attorneys to date–a stark contrast to their London office, which went from 2 attorneys at their 2010 opening to 129 today.
Anthony Nasharr, Managing Partner of the Chicago office of Polsinelli, believes that firms looking to expand into Chicago need to be “chasing work characteristic to the city, like agribusiness or financial services” (as quoted in Crain’s). Polsinelli, a firm headquartered in Kansas City, has proven that they have the right approach for Chicago growth, successfully growing their six-attorney starter office to almost 100 in just eight years. Nasharr also notes that a new Chicago office requires strong support from their headquarters to help the office thrive–like supplying the funds to bring on quality lateral partners. Much Shelist Managing Partner Mitchell Roth agrees that the need for good talent is critical to success in any major market, but argues that acquiring that talent can prove difficult: “To open a five-person office and expand to 100 in one or two years, when everyone’s trying to buy the exact same talent? It’s next to impossible,” he says (as quoted in Crain’s).
Despite the difficulties, six out-of-town firms merged with Chicago firms last year–more than in any other city, Crain’s reports. However, former Kirkland & Ellis partner Steven Harper warns the newcomers not to be fooled into thinking their high-profile reputations will be their be-all, end-all for attracting clients: “These firms believe that…clients will flock to the brand. Well, maybe not. Probably not,” he cautions (as quoted in Crain’s).
The frenzy of mergers between IP boutiques and national full-service firms shows no signs of abatement, The American Lawyer reports. Since April, at least eight IP firms have been acquired by Am Law 200 firms, driven largely in part by the recent changes in patent law, according to the article.
However, patent litigation “remains hot,” the article argues, citing the results of a Lex Machina study, which found that patent litigation in the U.S. increased by 15 percent last year. The struggle for boutique patent firms, according to shareholder Thomas Anderson of Gifford Krass, a firm that merged with Dinsmore this past fall, is acquiring and keeping the larger clients. Anderson says that it “becomes hard for a firm of our size to attract large-scale patent litigation [because] Fortune 50 companies want large firms with lots of resources” (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
Larger, full-service firms view the bolting on of IP boutiques as a quick and easy way to build up their patent practice, an area which is “incredibly important” to clients, says Lewis Rose, managing partner of Kelley Drye.
With boutique IP firms across the country continuing to battle to maintain revenue and retain partners, it looks like this merger rush won’t be slowing down anytime soon.