03 January 2018

Record-breaking year for law firm mergers

More law firms than ever took the plunge last year as they sought to find ways of differentiating their offerings in a highly competitive market.


With 15 cross-border mergers and 102 US law firms signing deals, many law firms are turning to merger in a move to gain traction in a difficult marketplace. The US marketplace  had a record-breaking year in 2017 with 102 law firms going down the merger route. This beats the previous record of 91 and is the highest annual total recorded in the eleven years by Altman Weil's MergerLine. 'The law firm merger market is white hot,' says Altman Weil principal Tom Clay.  'Not only is there a broad-based, ongoing interest in acquiring small, high-quality firms to buy market share, but there is also a newly intensifying appetite for larger combinations as more law firms feel the pinch of flattening demand and look for new ways to differentiate themselves from competitors.'

Womble merges with Bond Dickinson

The largest combination of the year was a cross-border merger between 500-lawyer US law firm, Womble Carlyle and 580-lawyer UK firm Bond Dickinson, creating a new 1,000-lawyer, transatlantic law firm, Womble Bond Dickinson.  The new Womble Bond firm continued to grow in the fourth quarter, announcing two small acquisitions including: Blakely Sokoloff, a California IP firm, and Bennet & Bennet, a telecom boutique with offices in Maryland and Washington DC.

Dentons out front

Of the 15 cross-border combinations announced, seven were executed by global law firm Dentons which added to its 7,800-lawyer base with acquisitions of Maclay Murray & Spens, a 200-lawyer Scottish law firm, Boekel, a 70-lawyer law firm in the Netherlands, as well as small firms in Mexico, Peru, Uganda, Myanmar and Uzbekistan. Norton Rose Fulbright and DLA Piper, also among the world's largest law firms, each added to their headcounts with multiple international and domestic acquisitions last year.

Norton Rose bolts on Chadbourne

Norton Rose made the largest acquisition of a US law firm in 2017, by bolting on 300-lawyer, New York City-based, Chadbourne & Parke.  The firm added an additional 179 lawyers through its combination with Australian law firm, Henry Davis & York, as well as adding the four lawyers of Keller Snyman Schelhase in Cape Town, South Africa.

DLA completes international mergers

DLA Piper completed two sizeable international deals in 2017, picking up 150-lawyer Danish firm, LETT and 50-lawyer Portuguese firm, ABBC. In a third acquisition, the firm doubled its Los Angeles presence after adding 60-lawyer Liner.

US local moves

Three mid-sized US firms made significant geographic moves in 2017.  Ballard Spahr, a Philadelphia-based firm with more than 500 lawyers, added 136-lawyer, Minneapolis-based Lindquist & Vennum, entering the Midwestern US for the first time.  Saul Ewing, another Philadelphia firm also moved into the Midwest by combining with 140-lawyer, Chicago-based Arnstein & Lehr in to form a new 400-lawyer firm.  Detroit-based, 350-lawyer law firm, Clark Hill added its first California and Nevada offices with the acquisition of 90-lawyer Morris Polich & Purdy.

Smaller deals

In 2017, combinations involving law firms with 21 or more lawyers represented 20 per cent of total deals, while 80 per cent were acquisitions of firms with two to 20 lawyers. There was a distinct difference in geographic focus between the two groups. Forty percent of the larger combinations involved international law firms, and another 25 per cent were acquisitions of California law firms.  Among the smaller acquisitions of firms with 2 to 20 lawyers there was greater geographic dispersion overall. The top three inbound destinations for small deals in 2017 were Florida, Texas and New York. The full list of deals can be seen at MergerLine.

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