The merger market picks up: after CMS, could Q4 usher in a spate of law firm tie-ups?

Merger

The law firm merger front was quiet in the third quarter of 2016, but a spate of combinations announced within the past week suggests the end of the year is likely bring an upturn in merger news.

Last week’s partner vote confirming the merger of CMS Cameron McKenna, Nabarro and Olswang was followed by the news yesterday (17 October) that US firm Littler Mendelson is combining with France’s Fromont Briens, a 170-lawyer employment firm with offices in Paris and Lyon.

The tie-up, which comes after Littler’s combination with German boutique Vangard last October, means the US firm now has more than 1,000 lawyers in 77 offices across 35 US states and 16 countries outside North America, making it the world’s largest employment specialist firm.

Elsewhere, Los Angeles-based Haight Brown & Bonesteel last week acquired Sacramento real estate shop CVM Law Group, while leading offshore firm Collas Crill announced plans to merge with British Virgin Islands-based Farara Kerins.

“We do normally see an increase in merger activity in the fourth quarter,” said Eric Seeger, a principal at legal consultancy Altman Weil. “We expect to see the same this year.”

There have been rumours reported of larger combinations in the works. There are the ongoing discussions between Arnold & Porter and Kaye Scholer, as well as Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft’s talks with King & Spalding, although neither have yet come to fruition. Last year, talks were called off between Chadbourne & Parke and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

Potential US-UK tie-ups that came to nothing during the past year include discussions between Foley & Lardner and Eversheds, and Greenberg Traurig and Berwin Leighton Paisner, while talks between Addleshaw Goddard and US firm Hunton & Williams have stalled amid market uncertainty following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.

Seeger said large firms are preoccupied with overcapacity issues at the moment. He expects most will decide to deal with that issue “before going back into the market to talk [about a] major merger”.

Overcapacity is hurting law firms’ profitability, according to a May report released by Altman Weil. Of the 356 firms surveyed, nearly 60% said overcapacity is actively affecting their bottom line. Among firms with 250 lawyers or more, the problem is even more common, the report found.

In the third quarter of this year, Altman Weil counted 12 firm mergers, compared with 20 in the first quarter and 28 in the second quarter. The majority of combinations this year have involved firms with less than 20 lawyers. A similar report by another legal consultancy, Fairfax Associates, found that merger activity this year has so far remained mostly flat compared to 2015.

Major mergers involving UK firms in recent months have included Irwin Mitchell’s takeover of Thomas EggarWragge Lawrence Graham & Co’s combination with Canadian firm Gowlings to form Gowling WLG, as well as the union of Shakespeares and SGH Martineau in June last year.