Hands across the water

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I don’t normally focus on very large law firms and mergers thereof, but I’ll make an exception for this one. As you might have heard, US-based Hogan & Hartson and UK-based Lovells have apparently reached an agreement to merge their respective firms by May 2010. The combined entity (Hogan Lovells, provisionally) would crack the top ten worldwide in terms of both number of lawyers (circa 2,500) and annual billings (north of $1.9 billion), would have a massive global reach (as many as 40 offices, including substantial presence in China, Hong Kong and Germany), and would represent a rare joining of roughly equal-sized firms that appear compatible in both practice and culture.

I won’t try to improve upon the analyses already provided by Bruce MacEwen, Alex Novarese and Aric Press, among others. But I will provide one quote from each to indicate that this is not your garden-variety merger announcement:

- Bruce: “This is potentially a transaction that will change a conspicuous portion of the BigLaw landscape globally.”

- Alex: This is “the first concrete evidence to back up the claims made for months by managing partners on both sides of the pond that the general mood is warming to transatlantic mergers.”

- Aric: This is “a sign that while the Magic Circle and most financially elite New York firms continue to insist on their independent futures, firms just one step behind can see a future where a combination is greater than the sum of their parts.”

And in its daily e-newsletter, The Lawyer put it this way: “[T]he consensus so far in the market is that this deal could genuinely see the creation of something not seen before. ‘At a stroke you’ll have a firm the size of [Allen & Overy], better quality than DLA Piper, broader in scope than Herbert Smith and far more international than anything in the current UK mid-market,’ is how one London consultant sums up the deal.” The arrival of anything truly new in the legal services marketplace is always noteworthy, but a Hogan/Lovells merger could have significance beyond whether the firm manages to become more than the sum of its parts (which at this point seems fairly likely).

For one thing, this firm could be really transatlantic, in ways previous cross-ocean expansions (cf. Clifford Chance and Rogers & Wells) were not: a mega-firm, created by a merger of equals, with a center of gravity somewhere between the two capitals rather than vying between them (Hogan & Hartson, with a strong government practice, is headquartered in Washington, D.C., such that traditional London-New York rivalries might not kick in.) Back in February, I forecast a true US-UK powerhouse emerging from the recession, although I thought the American entry would hail from the Big Apple, and I didn’t think it would happen quite so soon. If the experts are right, other cross-ocean mergers might follow and a real wave of consolidation could be at hand.

Secondly, it’s instructive to note the innovations that each side is bringing to the table. The Lawyer reported earlier this month that Lovells is preparing to abandon its lockstep partner compensation system in favour of Hogan’s pure merit-based approach. Merit-based compensation has tremendous momentum in large firms right now, and although no one’s denying the challenges of partner compensation facing a potential Hogan Lovells, this suggests that more complex systems for assessing lawyers’ productivity are at hand. At the same time, Lovells was one of the first law firms to publicly acknowledge it was outsourcing legal document review to India, back in December 2007. UK firms are substantially ahead of their US counterparts in offshoring, so the Hogan side of the deal is going to acquire direct experience with this phenomenon. So in at least two ways, this is going to be very much a 21st-century law firm.

But here’s the main reason why I think this deal could be a game-changer: about a year after the expected May 2010 date for the Hogan Lovells merger to be completed, key provisions of the Legal Services Act come into force, and UK law firms will be allowed to accept non-lawyer investment and ownership under Alternative Business Structures (ABS). What if a future Hogan Lovells decided to take advantage of those provisions? It doesn’t figure to be the kind of Magic Circle or white-shoe firm that most agree would disdain the entrepreneurial offerings of the LSA — in fact, it looks exactly like the sort of firm (fresh, ambitious, global, innovative and unencumbered) for which the non-lawyer equity investment provisions were designed. If this new firm — or any other powerhouse resulting from a US-UK merger in the near future — went down that road, extremely interesting things would start to happen.

Hogan Lovells would be both English and American — and not one of the 50 states allows non-lawyer ownership of even a fraction of a law firm. So if this new firm did in fact accept venture capital or investment-fund equity, or float shares on a stock exchange, it likely would be in immediate contravention of the ethics rules in all the states where it carries on business. Hogan & Hartson, by way of example, currently has offices in Maryland, Colorado, Texas, California, Florida, New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as the District of Columbia. The ensuing tangle, it seems to me, would rapidly bring to a head the burgeoning conflict between how UK firms and US firms are structured and governed. In a globalized legal profession, this conflict is inevitable — but this new firm, if it comes into existence and if it acquires an ABS under the Legal Services Act, could actualize that conflict much sooner than we  expect.

So keep a closer eye on this merger than you normally might. It could be just another instance of two large firms becoming an even larger firm, still struggling to make its way in a challenging marketplace. Or it might turn out to be the catalyst for unprecedented change in the profession worldwide.

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