Wilde Sapte in Andersens link

Wilde Sapte is believed to be close to tying up a merger with Arthur Andersen.

If the merger goes ahead it would represent the largest single leap by any firm of accountants into the legal market.

Although Wilde Sapte was denying a merger when The Lawyer went to press, speculation was mounting in the City that a merger was imminent.

Wilde Sapte is understood to have been in negotiations with Andersens since the failure of Andersens' talks with Simmons & Simmons in November.

A sticking point is believed to be how much Andersens would invest in placing English lawyers abroad in order to build up an international English practice part of Wilde Sapte's strategy since the early 90s.

It is thought that Andersens may use the Wilde Sapte brand on its law firms in dozens of jurisdictions worldwide. In the UK, Garretts and Dundas & Wilson would be absorbed into Wilde Sapte. In Hong Kong and Paris, Wilde Sapte offices would merge with Ede Charlton & Co and Archibald Andersen respectively.

A merger would give Andersens a strong platform from which to offer its clients international English legal advice and pull foreign firms into its network a move which will disturb all the big City firms.

The head of insolvency at one top five City law firm has already had consultations with his marketing people to work out how to counter the threat.

Andersens' rivals would also be caught by surprise. Price Waterhouse, Coopers & Lybrand, KPMG and Ernst & Young are all believed to have talked to Wilde Sapte.

The uncertainty surrounding Price Waterhouse's plans to merge with Coopers and KPMG with Ernst & Young make attracting a law firm difficult.

Steve Blakeley, Wilde Sapte managing partner, denied his firm was merging with Andersens, but he told The Lawyer in December that a Big Six accountant could give his firm the international brand name and resources he needed.

He said none of the Big Six had understood that a UK firm of Wilde Sapte's size wanted to practise English law as a single international firm, rather than as a domestic firm plugged into a network of foreign law firms.

He said: “Over the last two or three years we've spoken to all sorts of people including all the firms of accountants. I've not yet heard anyone express a view which convinces me that they have understood that.”

Chris Campbell, northern England managing partner at Dundas & Wilson and Garretts said: “We are talking to lots of firms all over the country.”

Wilde Sapte's head of litigation Richard Caird and head of leasing Graham Smith have resigned from the firm. Caird, a financial services lawyer, is going to a bank, while Smith will join another firm.