Three South East law firms are merging to create a 40-partner practice, launching it into the top five in the region.
Argles & Court, Burstows and Stonehams join forces on 1 November to form Argles Stoneham Burstow with five offices across Surrey, Sussex and Kent.
Russell Bell, Stonehams' managing partner, will retain that position in the new firm. Argles' senior partner Raymond Harris and Burstows' managing partner, Tony Burstow become joint chairmen.
The partners from each firm – 16 at Burstows, 11 at Stonehams and 13 at Argles – voted unanimously for the merger, which Bell says will have a commercial/corporate focus and a substantial private client practice.
It is understood that in the region only Chichester-based Thomas Eggar Church Adams will have more partners.
According to Bell: “The way the market is going, all three firms were vulnerable in terms of size and location. We will have strength in depth which we didn't have before. We hope to retain some work in the South East which tends to migrate up to town.”
He says that the merged firm will restructure, establishing new teams across its offices in Brighton, Crawley, Croydon, Horsham and Maidstone.
Recruitment of senior associates has already begun, mostly to boost the new firm's commercial side and Bell confirms that internal reorganisation will involve some relocation of staff.
He says the three firms “weren't too far apart on pay structures”. A new pay system, involving initial fixed amounts, plus an appraisal system for partners and performance related profit-sharing is currently being finalised.
The firms were advised by Christopher Honeyman Brown of chartered accountants Horwath Clark Whitehill, who masterminded the Dibb Lupton Alsop merger.
Honeyman Brown says: “There are a number of significant law firms dotted around the South East but this merger takes the firm out of the herd and beyond local pressures into a position where they compete as heavy hitters on a regional scale.”
Jonathan Denny, managing partner of Tunbridge Wells firm Cripps Harries Hall, says: “It is an ambitious project. I was slightly surprised when I heard about this but not unduly concerned.
“Each of those three firms has been slightly losing their profile against larger firms like ourselves.
“Our strategy has been to concentrate on Tunbridge Wells and one challenge for them will be to spread themselves over five areas.
“If the merger does well then they will be a significant force in the South East. That's quite a big 'if'. It is a difficult thing to pull off.”