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5 Trends That Rocked The Legal Industry In 2019

Michele Gorman LAW360.COM

From some law firms' hard-knuckle responses to discrimination lawsuits filed against them, to the Big Four's ongoing creep into the legal sector, these were some of the moments and trends that shook the industry in 2019.

Firms Merging Their Way to the Top

Coming off the record pace of combinations in 2017, law firm merger activity started off slow in the first half of the year but picked up in the third and fourth quarters.

Between July and September, U.S. firms announced 38 new combinations. About a third of all deals shared in that period were among small firms of fewer than 50 lawyers, with the combinations confined to the same state or city. But there were also some deals among larger partnerships.

The biggest announced merger of the quarter was between Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, a "decentralized" 474-lawyer Midwest regional, and 135-lawyer Briggs and Morgan PA. The Briggs firm currently has three offices, two in Minneapolis-St. Paul and one in Denver. The deal, which goes into effect Jan. 1 and will create a firm with more than 600 lawyers, makes the Minneapolis office the largest for the combined firm.

At the end of October, two Midwest-based law firms — 240-attorney Lathrop Gage LLP and 155-attorney Gray Plant Mooty — announced that they had approved a combination.

Earlier in the fourth quarter, Dentons announced a three-way combination with two midsize Midwest law firms in what it said was the beginning of a planned expansion throughout the U.S., following the firm's July combination with a 113-lawyer New Zealand law firm.

A burst of news in mid-November about possible mergers among large law firms reflected an urgency across the industry to remain competitive, as 500- to 750-lawyer firms struggle to keep up with law's ever-burgeoning behemoths.

The discussed mergers between Atlanta-based Troutman Sanders LLP and Philadelphia-based Pepper Hamilton LLP, and between Minneapolis-based Faegre Baker Daniels and Philadelphia-based Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP would create the 14th and 10th largest law firms in the U.S., respectively.

While each of the combined law firms would have more than 1,000 attorneys, experts say the industry should expect more big merger announcements in the not-so-distant future.

"There are a lot of law firms out there. A lot of people are all chasing basically the same business," Jeffrey Lowe, global leader of recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa's law firm practice, told Law360 in November. "I think firms have come to the realization that rather than each competing separately, maybe with economies of scale we can capture more business by merging."

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