US firms givin’ it large

Over the last 18 months I’ve been listening a lot to managing partners predicting a spate of mergers in the legal sector. But despite all the exploratory phone calls and discreet lunches, there hasn’t been anything that’s come near to an agreement.

US firms givin’ it large Over the past 18 months I’ve been listening a lot to managing partners and consultants predicting a spate of mergers in the legal sector. But despite all the exploratory phone calls and discreet lunches, there hasn’t been anything that’s come near to an agreement.

UK managers are waiting until things bottom out. But this isn’t the case in the US, where a recent study by Altman Weil showed that there were 70 mergers in the US in 2008, up by 17 per cent from the previous year.

However, none of those mergers has been ­substantial. Our ranking of the top 30 US firms by global revenue, published today, shows that the pecking order has not changed enormously this year, and that all the top US firms’ revenues have held up relatively well (so far). As the legal economy enters a period of measured decline, organisations that can show any sort of growth are doing fabulously.

The two firms with the biggest cultural appetite for merger are Orrick, which has built its entire brand around acquisition, and K&L Gates, a newcomer to the game and one that seems to be aping Orrick in terms of international ambition and the visibility of the CEO.

Both have energetic leaders whose success has been measured through expansion. But should K&L Gates be worried? Orrick’s momentum – the one thing that set it apart from most of its competitors – has stalled. In many ways managerial success over the next couple of years will be measured on how smoothly and humanely you can contract your firm, not expand it. And that’s not in the business school handbook yet. There’s much less glory in that, and much less reward – literally.

However, I can’t help applauding both firms’ near-obsession with growth, especially now. Much like Ashurst’s foray into New York last week with the acquisition of a 10-partner structured finance team from ex-ally McKee Nelson (see feature), forward ­movement is invigorating.

Entirely properly, most law firms are currently committed to reshaping their businesses in a changed world. The danger is that they will also enter a period of defensive paralysis. That is an unwelcome contagion.

catrin.griffiths@thelawyer.com