WFW merger makes sense

The last time Watson Farley & Williams (WFW) was in anything resembling serious merger talks was with Simmons & Simmons in 2002.

Like a faintly tragic bit of adolescent dating, that came about because the two men then in charge – Simmons’ David Dickinson and WFW’s Christopher Preston – would regularly commute into London in the same carriage. Unfortunately, the only fit any of their bemused partners could come up with at the time was WFW’s asset finance business and… er… Simmons’ Dutch shipping practice.

WFW has approached its talks with US projects leader Chadbourne & Parke with a cooler head. The practice fit looks genuinely promising. Chadbourne is hoovering up infrastructure deals, both at home in the US and in Central and Eastern Europe, while WFW has recognised that its traditional base in asset finance is not going to be enough to grow the firm.

“Shipping is very much a mature market for us,” admits managing partner Michael Greville.

That statement is pregnant with meaning. Growth is all, and it isn’t coming from WFW’s traditional areas. These talks are a defensive play. WFW may still have a quality brand in finance, but over the past five years it has consistently struggled to pile on the revenue. Its litigation practice is shrinking; indeed, as we report this week, two litigation partners are leaving to join O’Melveny. The targeted growth is in project finance, particularly in renewable energy. Not only has WFW carved out a decent CV in wind farms, but Chadbourne has one of the leading renewables practices in the US.

WFW’s turnover is up to £54m, but it is being outpaced by Charles Russell, Travers Smith and Trowers & Hamlins. What’s more, PEP has actually dipped back below £400,000 this year. In The Lawyer’s Top of the PEPs – our rolling coverage of results on www.thelawyer.com – WFW is currently 33rd, behind Holman Fenwick & Willan and Stephenson Harwood, with plenty of firms still to declare.

There’s been turbulence at Chadbourne too. Managing partner Charles O’Neill took aggressive internal measures earlier this year to deal with what he termed “unacceptable” financials. A merger with WFW could plug some foreign investment gaps, but there’ll be some pretty frank talking before either side finally commits. Watch this space.