A marriage made in heaven… or hell?

Richards Butler has found its white knight and it may just be enough to save it. While the firm was not quite hooked up to a life-support system á la Hammonds, its average profit per equity partner is astoundingly low: £375,000 once you remove Hong Kong from the equation.

Despite its 2001 acquisition of Warner Cranston, Reed Smith has little profile in the UK. But managing partner Greg Jordan is doing his utmost to change that and has brought about a remarkable change in fortunes for the firm. On his watch, Reed Smith has been transformed from a minor league Pittsburgh outfit to a top 30 global player.

Reed Smith is good at mergers. It’s done five in five years since hooking up with Warner Cranston. It prides itself on its cross-selling, and this will be the key to saving Richards Butler.

The UK firm lost two key partners when Lista Cannon left for Fulbright & Jaworski and John Hull left for Latham & Watkins. Its other key litigators – Belinda Paisley and David Warne – remain loyal. Even the corporate team, so often derided, has two quality partners in David Boucher and Philip Taylor, who have had many a call from headhunters. They have resisted so far, but they need support.

Reed Smith won’t immediately provide them with that, but it may provide an incentive to stay. This is a merger where everyone hopes bigger will be better. The real question is how shipping will fit in.

Both sides are making encouraging noises about how they can cross-sell the shipping clients around the world. Sources at Richards Butler acknowledge that the practice is not that profitable, but claim it gives the firm a quality of client that another mid-market firm just would not have access to.

Whatever becomes of the legacy of Richards Butler, Reed Smith has momentum. Profit has rocketed in recent years. The firm is playing in the same ballpark as Olswang‘s mate Greenberg Traurig and pre-merger Piper Rudnick, although the momentum at that firm post-DLA seems to be taking it into a different stratosphere.

The firm that Richards Butler is beginning to resemble most is Jones Day – and the parallels with the Jones Day-Gouldens merger are too close to resist. There has been much blood on the carpet from that deal, but it was concluded at a time when most firms, including Richards Butler, were making swathes of people redundant. Richards Butler’s managing partner Roger Parker will hope his position on the board can save his firm from such bloodshed – but don’t count on it.