Solid last quarter boosts US law firm merger activity

Merger activity in the US legal market last year was dominated by small firms, data produced by management consultant Altman Weil has revealed.

While the final quarter of the year was notable for four major international deals, including that between Fulbright & Jaworski and Norton Rose, the rest of the year was characterised by mergers featuring the acquisition of firms with 20 or fewer lawyers.

More than three-quarters (47 deals, or 78 per cent) of the 60 mergers last year in the US involved the acquisition of smaller firms with 20 or fewer lawyers. Additionally there were seven deals (12 per cent) in which the acquired firm had between 21 and 100 lawyers.

In total the 60 deals announced in 2012 was the same number as in 2011. That year’s annual total of 60 deals represented a 54 per cent increase on 2010 and was also the highest number of mergers since 2008.

“There were 19 new law firm combinations announced in the fourth quarter, including the four major cross-border deals” said Altman Weil principal Ward Bower. “We’ve now seen nine straight quarters of steady deal-making since the legal industry shook off the worst effects of the recession.”

As well as the Fulbright and Norton Rose deal the last quarter of 2012 saw SNR Denton announce two mergers, with Salans and with Canadian firm Fraser Milner Casgrain.

K&L Gates also announced the acquisition of 300-lawyer Australian firm Middletons, a combination that will take the US firm’s lawyer count move above 2,000.

Along with these four deals there were also five additional cross-border combinations involving US firms in 2012 making a total of nine, the largest number recorded since MergerLine began tracking the market in 2007.