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2017 a Busy Year for Law Firm Merger Activity

As law firms expand their geographic reach and increase depth in practice areas, more firms are looking to merge or acquire other shops for business development opportunities and to raise the profile of their firms.

Those moves take time, both to find a firm that is a good fit for a merger or acquisition and to take the steps to ensure a smooth transition. Locally, many of those pieces came together for large firms this year.

On Jan. 1, Ober|Kaler officially merged with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson. After Labor Day, Saul Ewing merged with Arnstein & Lehr, a firm based in Illinois and Florida. That same day, Ballard Spahr LLP announced that it is merging with Minneapolis-based Lindquist & Vennum effective Jan. 1 of next year. Ballard Spahr also merged with media law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz on Oct. 1.

Over the summer, Womble Carlyle, which has an office in Baltimore, announced that it was joining forces with Bond Dickinson LLP, a firm with offices across the United Kingdom. Together, that firm officially became Womble Bond Dickinson in October.

“The merger activity this year that has impacted firms with offices in Baltimore is the most significant merger activity we have seen in many years,” said Randi Lewis, managing director at global attorney consultancy firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.

Merger activity involving firms that are based elsewhere and have a Baltimore presence may also affect the local market in the coming years.

“It’s been a great year for these firms that have merged. Down the road, one might expect that this merger activity will redound to the benefit of the lawyers in the Baltimore offices of those firms,” Lewis said.

A report released last week by Major, Lindsey & Africa predicted that large firms across the country will continue to expand through mergers and acquisitions.

“Though middle-market firms remain robust, there is a reduction in the number of single-city firms with national practices — the ones that remain are ripe for acquisition,” the report said.
That movement may also happen with local firms, Lewis said, but the legal market may also move in a different direction.

“There are many highly regarded single-city firms in Baltimore.  For the most part, they prefer to remain independent. To the extent that their financial health remains robust, they’re less likely to want to be acquired by national firms,” Lewis said.

Instead, a national firm seeking a Baltimore presence may have greater success convincing a group of lawyers from a firm in Baltimore to launch the Baltimore office of that firm, similar to how Jackson Lewis, Duane Morris and Womble Carlyle came to town, Lewis said.


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