Revealed: the US firms set to assault the City

Cooley, Goodwin Procter, Heller Ehrman, Nixon Peabody, Ropes & Gray battle it out for UK merger

A new wave of US firms is preparing to storm London in the hope of tracking down those elusive UK merger partners.

The Lawyer can reveal that Cooley Godward, Goodwin Procter, Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, Nixon Peabody, Proskauer Rose and Ropes & Gray are all on the merger trail.

Management teams from all of those firms have been in London discussing the possibility of transatlantic mergers with a dwindling number of available mid-size City law firms.

Since Olswang hooked up with Greenberg Traurig, another independent which had been actively seeking a US ally was removed from the US firms’ hit lists.

Those UK firms now being targeted include Richards Butler, SJ Berwin, Speechly Bircham, Steph-enson Harwood, Travers Smith and Watson Farley & Williams.

Proskauer’s negotiations with Richards Butler were at the most advanced stage, but floundered because the figures did not add up. The Wall Street firm’s average profit per equity partner (PEP) of just over $1.1m (£610,000) puts it among the most prosperous of the group, but also makes it one of the most difficult to merge with. The others all have PEP figures more equitable to those of the mid-tier City players being targeted.

Heller Ehrman’s international strategy partner Paul Downs echoed the sentiments of his peers when he told The Lawyer: “There’s an attraction to doing a combination – you get to a critical mass quickly. But there aren’t a lot of prospective partners because London’s just not as big a legal market as New York.”

Seventy of the AmLaw 100 firms now have some kind of presence in London, but the models that these firms are seeking to emulate are those of Jones Day (Gouldens), Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham, Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw and Reed Smith (Warner Cranston).

As the chairman of another of the US firms put it bluntly: “We don’t want a ‘one man and his dog’ operation.”

Of those already in London, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman has made no secret of its desire to merge there. Following Pillsbury’s absorption of Shaw Pittman, chair Mary Cranston is again focusing on the UK capital.

2004 breakdown of US firms seeking UK mergers
  Cooley Godward Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe Goodwin Procter Nixon Peabody Proskauer Rose Ropes & Gray
2004 revenue
$m (£m)
289 (160.2) 472 (261.6) 302 (167.4) 348 (167.4) 395 (218.9) 404.5 (224.2)
2004 PEP $K (£K) 850 (471) 855 (474) 1,165 (646) 550 (305) 1,140 (632) 1,060 (588)
No of lawyers 418 628 433 250 584 501
No of equity partners 127 199 105 250 150 182
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Source: The Lawyer/AmLaw 100