The Leader column

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a medium-sized law firm must be in want of a merger that fills in the gaps. As we all know, that never happens; Berwin Leighton’s current talks with Paisner & Co have tacitly acknowledged the impossibility of it.

But Berwin Leighton seems to have found the next best thing – a merger with a smaller version of itself. In property, Paisners’ leisure and retail occupier client base will diversify Berwin Leighton’s institution-heavy practice; while in e-commerce, Paisners’ content-focused business may make a nice fit with Berwin Leighton’s more corporate clients.

Let’s just hope the two firms don’t come to blows on integrating the profit share-out. A vocal minority of Berwin Leighton partners remains wedded to lockstep; there is a merit element, but only a tiny proportion of the total profits pool. That has caused fractious internal debate, and Paisners’ more idiosyncratic profits share-out may not sit easily.

But on a cultural level, both Paisners and Berwin Leighton are similar: they are at heart instinctive, rather than managed, practices. This has worked well up to a point, and has given partners the relative freedom to build up new business areas. But because of this – and this applies to Berwin Leighton in particular – there has been little coherent theorising about the vision going forward. Talk to Berwin Leighton partners about their own practices and they are entirely cogent; ask them about the firm as a whole and its direction – particularly within Europe – and most splutter to a halt. In fact, for many years there was confusion as to which product to push. Property? Corporate? IT and e-commerce? The issue would continually be ducked because it was so politically loaded.

But if the deal comes off, the merged firm may have to admit it is real estate-led. Berwin Leighton says that property accounts for 40 per cent of turnover, but that excludes property litigation, construction litigation, PFI and property finance, which takes it up to about 60 per cent of total revenues. With the addition of nine property partners from Paisners, it’s clear where the emphasis lies. And so if the talks come off, Berwin Leighton Paisner will become an £80m turnover firm with excellent domestic reach in real estate, good little outcrops of corporate and e-commerce and a revitalised management. Who does that remind you of? Why, Nabarro Nathanson, of course.

Catrin Griffiths, editor – catrin.griffiths@thelawyer.co.uk