Chris Fogarty and Robert Lindsay on the delicate negotiations that gave birth to the UK's eighth largest law firm

In the end one of the quickest and easiest decisions concerned the name.

Henceforth McKenna & Co and Cameron Markby Hewitt would be known as Cameron McKenna.

That decision took five minutes. Merger negotiations took four months of daily meetings.

The elaborate and secretive courtship dance of the merging law firms began in June 1996 when Cameron Markby Hewitt, Britain's 20th largest law firm with more than 310 fee earners, approached McKennas, the 16th largest with more than 340 fee earners, and began preliminary discussions about a merger.

Both firms had long viewed a merger as inevitable but exactly who to merge with had proved a sticking point.

Negotiations between the firms began in earnest two months later when a team from McKennas, led by managing partner Robert Derry-Evans, met on a daily basis with Peter Hewes and Clive Brown, the joint managing partners at Camerons, while senior partner Bill Shelford also kept a close eye on developments.

At one stage the merger was poised to become a menage a trois when Denton Hall, the 14th largest firm in Britain with 387 fee earners, entered into negotiations to create what would have been the second largest firm in the country.

“They were just exploratory talks; they did not get anywhere near the stage where there was a prospectus before the partners on which to vote,” said Derry-Evans of Denton Hall's involvement and eventual withdrawal in November.

He insists he does not know why Denton Hall pulled out, but it is understood that the firm withdrew because it was known that one partner was firmly against a merger, and the vote had to be unanimous.

Shelford says the three-way partnership was worth exploring and served to emphasise to Camerons and McKennas that they at least would complement each other.

Talks progressed so well that the two firms combined to take part jointly in two beauty parades, informing their clients of the proposed merger, and that they would share the work between them if it did not go ahead. They won one contract and are waiting to hear about the other, although the firms refuse to reveal further details.

One of the biggest issues in the merger negotiations was disparity of profitability but both firms happily hammered out a profit-sharing system that, they say, will ensure no one will lose out on. Other hurdles such as premises were easily overcome.

“There were very few critical issues,” explained Derry-Evans. “But it still takes time to put together a package you know your partners are going to vote on.”

The two firms had decided that instead of drip feeding information to partners they would simply put a prospectus together so they could see the proposal in its entirety.

Public relations company Fishburn Hedges was brought in to help both firms sell the merger package internally to the partners and staff, as well as handle the merger's publicity if it was eventually agreed.

“I think it's important that you sell this to both your staff and the public,” said Derry-Evans.

The wider public learnt of the proposed merger when The Lawyer broke the story in September and then revealed in early November that Denton Hall had pulled out of talks.

Throughout the build-up to the merger an array of spokespeople for the firms furiously downplayed or fudged their responses to media enquiries about the merger. But Shelford said it was inevitable that merger news would leak out.

The key for the merging firms was to talk to partners first and keep the period of uncertainty to a minimum.

On 9 December the McKennas partners were given the prospectus after a slick hour-long presentation while both firms began holding workshops for their practice groups.

The vote came on 16 December when 148 partners from Camerons and McKennas met separately.

One Camerons partner voted against the merger, the rest from both firms – 147 – said yes.

The next morning more than 1,000 staff from both firms walked into their offices to be confronted with a booklet explaining the merger.

The prepared booklet, the beauty parade and the near-unanimous vote show just how well orchestrated this near-inevitable merger was.