Speechlys and Withers in talks over £170m merger

Speechly Bircham and Withers are in merger talks in a bid to create a £170m City firm of roughly 500 lawyers.

The firms are understood to be considering a combination that would lead to a business of around 200 partners across 11 global offices.

Both firms have a focus on private client work, while the deal is also seen as an opportunity to add Speechlys’ heftier City corporate and real estate practices to Withers’ international network in 10 locations.

A market commentator said: “What it’ll end up with is the world’s biggest private client firm. They’re probably culturally similar firms.”

A merger would put the combined outfit on the brink of the top 20 UK firms by turnover, with Addleshaw Goddard last year standing 21st on £170m.

How advanced the talks are is unclear, but a source with knowledge of the potential tie-up commented: “It’s premature to talk about it being a done deal.” The talks were first reported by legal website RollonFriday.

Withers partners are today (22 March) gathered in Italy for the firm’s partnership conference. The firm has an office in the country, one of three bases on Continental Europe in Geneva, Milan and Zürich.

Speechlys’ offices are in London, Luxembourg and Zürich, with the latter two opening in June 2011 (6 June 2011).

The news also comes after Speechlys brought in Martin Lucas as its finance director earlier this year from US firm White & Case, where he was UK finance director. The firm moved into larger headquarters in New Street Square in 2008, later merging with West End firm Campbell Hooper in 2009 to propel it into the top 50 UK firms by revenue (25 May 2009).

In January 2002 Withers merged with US firm Bergman Horowitz & Reynolds (3 December 2001), while in 2011 it extended its reach to Singapore (25 July 2011). Revenue increased from £100.8m in 2010/11 to £113.3m in 2011/12, while average profit per equity partner (PEP) was £386,000 for the latest financial year (18 July 2012).

Speechlys’ turnover fell 3 per cent from £59.5m to £57.6m in 2011/12, with PEP dropping from £384,000 to £300,000 (18 July 2012).

In 2011/12 Withers had an average of 272 lawyers and and 107 partners, in contrast to Speechlys’ 222 lawyers and 91 partners.

David Flynn, head of professional services at reputation management consultancy Eulogy, commented: “Today’s news really is a game changer in the private client arena and it’ll be interesting to see how other firms will respond. The opportunities for private client firms are increasingly in the international arena, in particular from Russia, China and India. At the same time there is the growing threat of major global institutions such as banks potentially entering the legal market.

“By making this move Withers and Speechly Bircham are ensuring they are in a stronger position to meet the needs of current and potential clients and resisting the challenge from new organisations entering the market.”

Both firms declined to comment.