Marriage of convenience

How ironic that on the western side of Chancery Lane last week the Law Society finally gave approval for multi-disciplinary partnerships and on the eastern side Denton Hall revealed its plans to merge with Wilde Sapte.

Both decisions are great indicators of the state of the profession as we approach the end of the century. The first because it paves the way for the growth of a more modern, effective legal profession able to compete more effectively in the business world. The second because it reminds the profession just how far it has to go before it can realise those ambitions.

The unwieldy structure and management team created by Denton Wilde Sapte suggests that the new firm lacks a centre. There are big issues concerning partner remuneration and exit policy that need to be resolved, as well as the structural weaknesses of some of the practice areas.

At the very least the new-look firm will need a strong charismatic leader in the mould of Linklaters' Terence Kyle, who can crack heads and force through radical change. But even if it gets one, the fact is that the merger just does not make business sense.

If there is one glaring lesson endless management surveys – including The Lawyer 100 – reveal, is that real growth comes from medium-size firms which specialise and concentrate on core activities. While Wilde Sapte has a very good and very strong banking practice, Denton Hall's is very weak. Denton Hall has a very good reputation in media and energy – Wilde Sapte has none.

The ability to offer a multi-faceted firm is a luxury that only the magic circle firms can afford. Whichever way Denton Hall and Wilde Sapte try to dress up the new-look firm, most of the profession recognise it for what it is – a rushed attempt to marry two ungainly law firms to satisfy a business principle that size, rather than quality, is what really matters.

The irony is that following last week's decision by the Law Society to allow MDPs, Wilde Sapte's future may have looked a great deal rosier with Arthur Andersen than it does with Denton Hall.