ANOTHER BIG LAW FIRM COMBO?

You might think that the leaders of SNR Denton would pause to take a breath after completing the firm’s March 2013 merger with Paris-based Salans and Canadian-based Fraser Milner Casgrain. But according to published reports, almost immediately after closing the Salans/FMC deal to become a 2,700-lawyer mega-verein, Dentons began discussions to add yet another contingent — McKenna Long & Aldridge and its more than 500 attorneys.

As I wrote almost a year ago, the leaders of what had been SNR Denton boasted that they had used no strategic legal consultants or advisers in the process that led to its French-Canadian three-way. But they did have “branding and advertising advisers” who recommended the entity’s new name, Dentons.

I don’t know if Dentons’ leadership is getting advice on its current potential merger, but if it goes through, the McKenna Long & Aldridge brand seems likely to disappear — as did Sonnenschein’s, Salans’, and Fraser Milner Casgrain’s. Then again, the Luce Forward Hamilton & Scripps brand disappeared after its 2012 merger with McKenna Long.

The venerable McKenna Long brand won’t be the only casualty. The combined firm would have two offices (each with a significant number of lawyers) in five cities: Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Brussels. In touting the prospect of creating the world’s third’s largest law firm of more than 3,100 attorneys, no one is estimating the number of likely near-term departures.

Who is being served? Clients?

The rhetoric accompanying most big law firm combinations is usually the same. In response to inquiries about its discussions with McKenna Long, Dentons issued this statement: “Since creating Dentons earlier this year, we have been very clear in our determination to always deepen our capabilities to serve clients in the U.S. and around the world.”

But clients aren’t asking their outside law firms to join with other firms. In fact, most clients understand that no single firm (or collection of firms in a verein) could or should house every attorney most appropriate for their needs throughout the country, much less the world.

Who is being served? Partners of the merging firms?

Perhaps the prospect of financial gain for individual partners underlies the Dentons/McKenna Long discussions. For the Dentons partners who haven’t yet lived through a full year since the Salans/FMC combination, that suggestion seems like a triumph of hope over what is, at best, profound uncertainty.

Maybe the myth that economies of scale accompany the growth of law firms is driving this deal and others that have preceded it recently. But according to law firm management consultants Altman Weil, getting bigger doesn’t make law firms more efficient. It usually works the other way.

On the McKenna Long side, the financial motivation is even less evident. According to the 2013 Am Law rankings, the firm had 2012 average partner profits greater than SNR Denton’s ($930,000 for McKenna Long v. $785,000 for SNR Denton prior to the Salans/FMC merger), along with a better profit margin (26 percent v. 22 percent).

Maybe McKenna Long partners are relying on the verein structure of the combination to preserve their relatively superior economic position. After all, individual firms in a verein retain their financial independence. But as Edwin B. Reeser and Martin J. Foley suggest in their recent article on undisclosed fee-sharing agreements, that structure could also be creating thorny ethical complications when client referrals across member firms within a verein become factors in compensating partners.

Who is being served? Empire builders

For many big firm leaders, growth has become a stand-alone strategic objective. How many of them remember Steven Kumble’s similar view?

Kumble presided over an explosive expansion that, by 1986, made Finley Kumble the second largest firm in the world. As Kumble erected his firm’s global platform from 1977 to 1986, a fellow partner asked him why his goal wasn’t to create the best firm, rather than the biggest one.

Kumble replied, “When you’re the biggest, everyone will think we’re the best.”

He was wrong. As Finley Kumble became one of the biggest firms, no one ever thought it was the best. Through acquisitions of other firms and aggressive lateral hiring of rainmaker partners, Kumble promoted a culture in which money became the glue that held things together — until it didn’t.

In December 1987, Finley Kumble dissolved and its brand became a symbol of monumental law firm failure.

4 thoughts on “ANOTHER BIG LAW FIRM COMBO?

  1. “The Rise and Fall of Finley Kumble,”an excellent book about that monument to hubris, should be required reading for all law firm leaders bent on empire-building (at worst) or growth for its own sake (at best). As George Santayana observed so sagely, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

  2. Swiss Verein’s aren’t established for the purpose of creating internal efficiencies. They are created to expand market share. However, they do the opposite when they are created as they wipe out often decades of referral relationships that existed where the firm did not previously operate. So the merger begins with a net business development negative for which a concerted effort is required to overtake that self-imposed revenue hit. So one would think Denton’s is putting in place extraordinary measures to build revenue post-merger. And I believe the answer to that questions is: they are not.

  3. I don’t know much about these specific firms, but as to your observation that “getting bigger doesn’t make law firms more efficient. It usually works the other way”, anyone who has ever bothered (or been allowed) to look at the expenses of a law firm with multiple offices who has not figured that out should not be in law firm management.

    I would make the not unrelated observation, though, that CEOs, CFOs and other senior managers of business enterprises are usually paid more and receive more perks for shear growth as they have more to manage.

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