Mergers & breakdowns

Review of the year

The year began with Pinsent Curtis merging with Biddle, a decent merger, but as The Lawyer pointed out, its announcement was a tad over-spun. “Oh, puh-lease. When Pinsent Curtis Biddle press-released its merger last week, it all sounded so plausible. Great fit, bolstering London, big push on private equity, blah blah blah. And then Julian Tonks had to go and spoil it all. ‘We will be able,’ he declared, ‘to compete with leading firms outside the magic circle.’ Julian, Julian, Julian. Why didn’t you just go the whole hog and say you’re on the verge of bagging the entire FTSE 100? Or poised to dominate in European high-yield?” (Leader, 22 January).

Osborne Clarke launched an attack on the London property market by merging with niche London property practice McGuinness Finch. Osborne commercial property partner Colin Kearney said: “It’s very difficult in the West End to attract good company lawyers away from the City. It grates when clients ask you to do a job and you have to refer it on.” (14 May.)

In May, Bond Pearce and Bristol’s Cartwrights announced their intention to merge, with the insurance litigation department spun-out as an independent partnership (28 May).

Cambridge firm Hewitson Becke + Shaw was set to merge with Oxford firm Linnells in June 2001, which would have created the first law firm to have a presence in both cities. The two parties had even agreed a name, Hewitson Linnells, before talks collapsed later in the year.

And then came a bout of merger talks destined to collapse. In July, Simmons & Simmons entered merger negotiations with German firm Beiten Burkhardt Mittl & Wegener over the formation of an alliance (9 July), and The Lawyer revealed that Stephenson Harwood was in talks with US firm Holland & Knight to create the largest transatlantic merger since Clifford Chance and Rogers & Wells. The combined firm would gross more than £300m (30 July).

Merger talks between Theodore Goddard and Salans Hertzfeld & Heilbronn fizzled out, with the former citing concerns about economic uncertainty in light of 11 September. Salans, meanwhile, said it wanted to focus on building up its own international offices (24 September). Talks between Birmingham’s Wragge & Co and London IT specialist Tarlo Lyons also collapsed. They entered negotiations in June, but failed to reach a partnership vote. Wragges senior partner John Crabtree (left) said: “We just couldn’t generate enough enthusiasm to go ahead.” (10 September.)

“Theodore Goddard, Hewitson and Wragges spent endless time toing and froing or taking soundings within their firms. By contrast, Denton Wilde Sapte and Hammond Suddards Edge are both textbook examples of how to pull off a merger in the current legal market: present it as a fait accompli to the partners and then make sure they’re all too stunned to voice any protest.” (Leader, The Lawyer, 1 October.)

In October, The Lawyer revealed that Simmons & Simmons was on the verge of completing its European map, with a full merger in the Netherlands with Rotterdam-based Nolst Trenité.

November was the high spot for mergers. First, The Lawyer revealed that KLegal was in merger talks with McGrigor Donald, which would form a firm with a £50m turnover, propelling KLegal into the UK top 40 (12 November). Then Radcliffes and Le Brasseur J Tickle created a 61-partner firm, following Radcliffes’ merger last year with seven-partner property firm Jay Benning & Peltz (12 November).

Also, The Lawyer revealed that Cobbetts was set to merge with Read Hind Stewart in Leeds, while in the South East Laytons announced that it had merged with niche technology practice Lochners (12 November). Rowe & Maw and Mayer Brown & Platt furthered their merger negotiations, hammering out a deal that would give the London firm a voice within the global organisation (26 November).

The biggest merger of December was between Withers and New York’s Bergman Horowitz & Reynolds. Subject to Law Society approval, Withers will both merge and adopt limited-liability partnership status at the beginning of next year – the first UK top 100 firm to do so.

And one cannot forget Hammond Suddards Edge, which has been probably the UK’s busiest practice when it comes to mergers.