25 Jan 2023

Atlanta, Chicago law firms announce merger to create AmLaw 150 firm

Combination of Smith Gambrell & Russell and Freeborn & Peters to forge 400-lawyer firm with revenue in excess of $260m

Atlanta, Georgia. Sean Pavone

Atlanta-based Smith Gambrell & Russell (SGR) is to merge with Chicago's Freeborn & Peters in a move that will create a firm with turnover of more than $260m. 

The deal was unanimously approved by the partnerships of both firms, with the combined business to operate under the SGR name and house roughly 400 lawyers across 11 US offices and three in Europe. 

It is by far the largest of three mergers secured by SGR over the last 12 months as it seeks to grow its US footprint: the firm estimates it will move up to 132 from 178 in the AmLaw 200 ranking by revenue.

In March last year it gained a Chicago office when it took over litigation boutique Figliulo & Silverman having added Atlanta boutique Rogers & Hardin in January of that year. Its network also extends to small bases in London, Southampton and Munich.

SGR managing partner Stephen Forte said: “As we began discussions of a possible combination last August, it became clear that this was an exceptional opportunity to bring together two firms with similar cultures, operations and plans for expansion in complementary geographic markets and practice areas. We had a shared vision, and a combination could accelerate our growth in a way that single and small group lateral hires could not.”

The deal is the latest of a flurry of mergers and large team hires announced this month that includes Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe's impending tie up with Washington DC-based specialist fintech firm Buckley and Holland & Knight's absorption of Nashville-based healthcare specialist Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis.

Robert Bata, principal of WarwickPlace Legal, said: “This activity, which is sure to accelerate this year, is a result of pent-up need that accumulated during the pandemic.  Not only was it more difficult to get a merger done when in-person meetings were not feasible, but law firms also had occasion to reflect on their strategy going forward."

SGR said the merger will align both firms’ practice area strengths, SGR’s corporate and other transactional teams in particular being areas that Freeborn had been seeking to grow. For its part Freeborn’s litigation bench bolsters the capabilities that SGR added in Chicago last year through its combination with litigation boutique Figliulo & Silverman. 

“In less than a year, SGR has combined with two independent, Chicago-based law firms and is really making a mark as an exciting place to practice law,” said James Figliulo of SGR, who will be co-managing partner of the Chicago office with Freeborn’s William Russell.

SGR also highlighted that its aviation finance, international transactional and intellectual property practices would be complemented by Freeborn’s capabilities in international arbitration, bankruptcy and insurance and reinsurance. 

Joseph McCullough IV, chair of Freeborn’s executive committee, said: “It’s rare to see a combination that is so mutually beneficial. For us, it fits perfectly within our strategic plan to bolster our corporate practice, expand to key markets across the United States, and significantly grow in the highly competitive New York market.

"This immediately achieves all those objectives. The same is true internationally in England and Germany where SGR already has offices. We do a substantial amount of work for London clients and have a large client base in Germany, and this gives the combined firm a great platform to expand the work we do for clients in both countries as well.” 

The merger will see the firms’ overlapping offices in Chicago and New York combine to create teams with lawyer headcounts of 110 and 60 respectively, though the Atlanta office will house the most lawyers, with around 140. 

It will also see Freeborn’s other bases in Tampa, Florida and Springfield, Illinois join SGR’s wider network, which includes US offices in Austin, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Florida, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington DC as well as its European bases.

The firms will share leadership responsibilities for the combined SGR, with a mix of SGR and Freeborn partners serving on the executive and compensation committees and in office and practice management. McCullough will be a member of the executive committee, and Forte will remain the firm’s managing partner and chair of the executive committee. 

Last year there were 46 mergers involving US law firms, according to research by consultancy Fairfax Associates, up from 46 in 2021 but well below the ten-year average. Fairfax predicts merger activity will increase across all segments of the legal market in 2023.

Other notable deals clocked up this month include Morrison & Foerster's absorbtion of 36-lawyer San Francisco IP litigation boutique Durie Tangri, which went live at the start of the month, while mass hires have seen K&L Gates secure a seven-partner corporate team from Pittsburgh-based Dentons Cohen & Grigsby and Goodwin Procter scoop a group of 14 partners from Troutman Pepper to officially launch in Philadelphia. 

Bata said: “We are seeing a real focus on doubling down on strengths, for example healthcare in the cases of Goodwin Procter and Holland & Knight, and on building capacity complementary to strengths, as in the financial-regulatory sphere for Orrick.”

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