A BIG LAW FIRM THREE-WAY

With Hurricane Sandy and the election dominating last week’s headlines, news of another blockbuster merger didn’t receive the attention that it deserved. Later this month, the combination of SNR Denton, the Canadian firm (Fraser, Milner & Casgrain – FMC), and Paris-based Salans will create a 2,500-attorney enterprise known as Dentons, assuming their respective partners approve the merger. The transaction merits a closer look.

Not so long ago

Twenty years ago, Elliott Portnoy graduated from Harvard Law School. In 2002, he joined Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal. Prior to that, he’d headed the public policy group of Arent Fox, an Am Law 200 firm, in Washington, D.C.

In June 2006, at age 40, Portnoy became the youngest chairman in Sonnenschein’s history. At the same time, the firm released a new strategic plan whereby it would increase average equity partner profits from $800,000 to $1.4 million by 2008. That didn’t happen.

In 2007, Sonnenschein had 600 lawyers and average partner profits of $915,000, but since then it hasn’t seen profits numbers that high. Central components of its strategy have been the aggressive recruitment of lateral partners and the pruning away of others. In early 2008, 37 lawyers and 87 non-attorney employees received their walking papers. By year-end, average partner profits had dropped to $805,000. Of course, the onset of the Great Recession contributed to that decline, but many other firms weathered the storm with much less damage.

Time to merge

The 2008 drop in average partner profits didn’t seem to affect Sonnenschein’s strategic plan. Aggressive lateral hiring continued, including 100 lawyers from failing Thacher, Proffitt & Wood in December 2008. Average partner profits kept dropping — to $780,000 in 2009. The following year, 2010, brought the ultimate lateral hiring event: Sonnenschein’s merger with U.K.-based Denton, Wilde & Sapte to create a 1,200-lawyer firm.

As a Swiss verein, the two firms retained their independent financial status. But according to the Am Law Global 100, SNR Denton’s first full year as a combined entity produced overall average partner profits of $700,000 in 2011. The former Sonnenschein side of the firm reported $880,000 in average partner profits, so Portnoy heralded the merger a success and “not a destination, but a part of the journey.”

The journey continues

In 2011, SNR Denton was one of several firms exploring merger possibilities with Dewey & LeBoeuf as it careened toward disaster. According to the Wall Street Journal, Sonnenschein’s leadership had named its proposed deal “A Phoenix Rises from the Ashes” and contemplated a full-scale merger that combined all 1,000 Dewey & LeBoeuf attorneys with SNR Denton. Borrowed money would have financed the transaction — a tactic apparently drawn from the big law firm “lessons not learned” list.

Unexpected bad news may have saved SNR Denton from itself. According to the Journal, the deal was gaining momentum when it cratered after Dewey’s revelation that Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. had opened a criminal investigation into Dewey.

Doubling down on a dubious approach

The journey has now led to the proposed combination of SNR Denton, FMC, and Salans. If consummated, the merger would double the size of the current SNR Denton. If the transaction goes through, what results won’t be a partnership. Whether it would become a profitable business venture for the participants is an open question.

To help answer that question, SNR Denton’s management got limited outside help. According to Portnoy and SNR Denton’s global chairman Joseph Andrew, “branding and advertising advisers” recommended a single-name moniker, Dentons. (Do they know that Dr. Dentons are children’s pajamas with feet?) But Andrew also noted that the firm used no strategic legal consultants or advisers in its process.

I don’t know if the other firms had advisers. Nor do I know if Salans had advisers in 1998, when it blazed a trail by becoming the first major law firm to complete a transatlantic merger, acquiring Christy & Viener. But that transaction didn’t turn out very well.

Maybe this time will be different. For the sake of many fine lawyers and even greater numbers of staff who are relying on management to chart a wise course for three law firms, let’s hope so. Among the most important lessons of Dewey & LeBoeuf are these: the margin for leadership error is slim and the consequences of missteps can be catastrophic.

One thought on “A BIG LAW FIRM THREE-WAY

  1. Thanks, Steve, for your healthy skepticism. I’ve long referred to these mega-mergers as “trying to scale the unscalable.” No matter what they do, MegaLaw suffers from three crippling structural weaknesses:
    1) Production: Law firms still embrace a “guild production” mentality, i.e., each lawyer crafts a unique solution for each client, and bills for the time it took to produce it.
    2) Management: Lawyers only respect legal fee-earners, which leaves almost all levels of management with the need to continue practicing law to some extent. In a billion-dollar enterprise, how can management be a part-time job performed by an elected cadre with no training or experience?
    3) Distribution: Sales is a mission-critical component of every business except Law. Law firms resist the idea of a dedicated, full-time, professional sales force, instead relying on untrained, inexperienced, part-time, volunteer “saleslawyers.”

    Imagine a corporate lawyer advising a commercial client to embrace these practices? The time it would take for them to become a former client would be measured in seconds.

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