2017 Record Year for Law Firm Mergers

2017 marked a period of mass consolidation in the legal market as law firms combined to add clients, expand numbers and strengthen their bottom lines.

Last year, they set a new record with 102 mergers or acquisitions, according to Altman Weil MergerLine, which keeps track of the data.

It was the highest number recorded in the 11 years that MergerLine has collected the data. The highest previous number was the 91 consolidations reported in 2015.

Mergers and acquisitions have been on the upswing for the last decade, with a growing number of cross-border mergers.

“The law firm merger market is white hot,” said Thomas S. Clay, an Altman Weil principal. “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.”

Cross-border mergers also set a new record last year. There were 15, eclipsing the record of 11, set in 2016. The largest such combination in 2017 was a merger between Womble Carlyle, a U.S. law firm with 500 lawyers, and U.K. firm Bond Dickinson, with 580 lawyers. The new transatlantic entity is called Womble Bond Dickson.

That didn’t put the brakes on Womble’s acquisition spree. Before the end of 2017, the firm added two smaller firms: Blakely Sokoloff, a California intellectual property boutique firm, and Bennet & Bennet, a telecom firm with offices in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Giant global law firm Dentons, with 7,800 lawyers, also expanded its footprint. It acquired seven firms around the world last year, including Maclay Murray & Spens, a 200-lawyer Scottish law firm; Boekel, a 70-lawyer firm in the Netherlands; and small firms in Mexico, Peru, Uganda, Myanmar, and Uzbekistan.

Other large firms, including Norton Rose Fulbright and DLA Piper, also added to their lawyer ranks last year with a number of international and domestic acquisitions.

In the largest one, Norton Rose in 2017 took on New York-based Chadbourne & Parke, with 300 lawyers. It added another 179 lawyers when it combined with Australian law firm Henry Davis & York, and added four lawyers from Keller Snyman Schelhase in Cape Town, South Africa.

DLA Piper, another huge law firm, picked up Danish firm LETT, with 150 lawyers; Portuguese firm ABBC, with 50 lawyers; and Los Angeles firm Liner, with 60 lawyers.

It was not just the giant firms that were actively merging, though. Mid-size firm Ballard Spahr, a Philadelphia-based firm with more than 500 lawyers, expanded to the Midwestern market when it acquired Minneapolis-based Lindquist & Vennum, with 136 lawyers.

Saul Ewing, another Philadelphia firm also moved into the Midwest by combining with Chicago-based Arnstein & Lehr, with 140 lawyers, to form a new 400-lawyer entity. Detroit-based law firm Clark Hill, with 350 lawyers, ventured west, adding its first California and Nevada offices by combining with 90-lawyer Morris Polich & Purdy.

Overall, 80 percent of last year’s 102 law firm combinations were pickups of small firms with between two and 20 lawyers. California firms were the primary targets.

The consolidations underscore the difficulties smaller firms face in staying afloat as the legal landscape adjusts to changes in traditional ways of practicing law, including more automated legal services and lower client rates, according to legal consultants.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Olson in Maryland at egolson1@gmail.com.

To contact the editors on this story: Casey Sullivan in New York at csullivan@bloomberglaw.com and Nicholas Datlowe in Arlington at ndatlowe@bloomberglaw.com.