Earlier this fall, I gave a presentation to a Canadian law society that described the key trends in the current legal marketplace and forecast where they’re likely to lead in future. As part of the presentation, we discussed a series of hypothetical future developments that would require the profession’s regulators to respond. One of them went like this:
A new legal services company, GlobalLaw Inc., has risen suddenly and dramatically. Based in London, it has taken advantage of the non-lawyer equity provisions of the Legal Services Act to collect massive amounts of capital from investment banks. With this money, GlobalLaw has bought law firms and hired lawyers worldwide, created a huge and sophisticated online service infrastructure, and marketed itself aggressively in multiple jurisdictions. GlobalLaw has now announced plans to buy mid-sized firms in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal simultaneously, and to re-brand and operate them all as GlobalLaw offices. What do you do?
That scenario stopped being hypothetical yesterday, with the bombshell announcement by UK-based global law firm Norton Rose that it was merging with South Africa’s Deneys Reitz and Canada’s Ogilvy Renault. You can read the details in any number of places, including The American Lawyer, LegalWeek, the WSJ Law Blog, the Financial Post, and The Globe & Mail — a range of international coverage that underlines the fact that this, as Joe Biden might say, is a big freakin’ deal.
Norton Rose started the day with close to 2,000 lawyers in 31 cities on three continents, whereas Deneys and Ogilvy together total about 600 attorneys in eight cities, so this looks more like strategic acquisitions as part of a global expansion than a merger of near-equals. I can’t speak to the South African side of this deal, and I’m not even that interested in the logic of the moves from the firms’ respective strategic perspectives (though it sure looks sound to me). What I’m most interested in today is the impact of this development on Canada’s legal marketplace, which I think will be extraordinary.
Some context is necessary, especially if you’re not from around these parts: nothing like this has happened in the Canadian legal marketplace before. Baker & McKenzie was the first “global” firm to come to Canada, but its Toronto office opened in 1962, virtually the Mesozoic Era in law firm history. In 1999, Tory Tory DesLauriers & Binnington consummated Canada’s first (and to date only) cross-border merger with New York’s Haythe & Curley, a union that took something of a star-crossed turn for both firms. In 2008, pulses quickened briefly on a report, immediately denied by all parties, that DLA Piper was in talks with national giant Fasken Martineau DuMoulin. And that’s pretty much the entire notable history of foreign forays into the Canadian legal market, until yesterday.
So you can understand why much of Canada’s legal profession looked like a poleaxed mule when this news broke. Before yesterday, the largest law firm in Canada was Borden Ladner Gervais with 753 lawyers; with this merger, Norton Rose will have more than three times that number. The Canadian firm with the most overseas offices was Macleod Dixon with four, followed by Faskens with three; Norton Rose will soon have nearly 35 offices outside Canada. This is like Gulliver buying a house in Lilliput; or, to borrow a metaphor from the US-Canada relationship, like the elephant moving in next to the mice. This is the world arriving on your doorstep without calling ahead — all the talk about globalization suddenly turned into the reality of a legal behemoth setting up shop down the street.
Norton Rose OR (as the new firm will be officially known) seems likely to affect the Canadian marketplace in a number of ways. Obviously, with a critical mass of lawyers in cities across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Australasia, Norton Rose will be a serious contender to pick up Canadian multinational clients (or the Canadian work of multinationals with head offices elsewhere). That platform will be equally attractive to potential lateral hires at other Canadian firms who’ll want to know whether there are wider horizons than those they’re currently flying. Aside from possible client and partner losses, incumbent Canadian firms will also be faced with new management pressures: as the Legal Post‘s Mitch Kowalksi points out, Norton Rose brings unprecedented financial transparency (the firm makes its annual report public) as well as superior knowledge management and online services to Canada. All of this changes the competitive calculus of a law firm marketplace that traditionally has behaved more like a cozy fraternity of genteel rivals.
I can see two other Canadian impacts flowing from this merger. The first is the fact that a precedent for global mergers has now been set, and precedent is both a reassuring and a galvanizing strategic force: nothing motivates a law firm more than removing the fear of going first while simultaneously creating the fear of going last. Will we see a stampede of Canadian firms rushing into global mergers? Not likely. But a lot of executive committees will meet to talk about what this merger means for them and whether there are similar overseas opportunities that their firms must now consider. There’s been a sense here that there are too many large firms in Canada for a population and a capital base this size: the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan notwithstanding, this country is not and isn’t likely to become the world’s corporate headquarters. Some people think that if the law of conflicts of interest were loosened, a wave of national mergers would soon follow. This is a marketplace more than ready for change and consolidation.
But here’s something else to think about: Norton Rose is on a major expansion tear. Last June, the firm made headlines when it merged with Australia’s well-regarded Deacons. Deneys Reitz itself was Chambers’ African Law Firm of the Year in 2006 and maintains a strong commercial law presence in the continent’s biggest economy. (It’s beyond debate that Norton Rose must be looking very hard at potential US merger partners as we speak.) Ogilvy Renault is not a “national” firm as we understand the term — it has little presence west of Toronto (though its Calgary office, opened last year, has grown to eight lawyers), and it still houses more lawyers in Quebec’s capital (Quebec City) than in Canada’s (Ottawa). But it represents global companies like Bombardier, SNC Lavalin and Royal Bank of Canada, and is widely considered a “blue chip” firm within the Canadian profession.
All of which is to say, each of these three firms brought serious credentials to the table, yet each agreed to give up their names and identities to join another firm. So we’re learning that global platform matters, and global capacity matters, and maybe above all, global brand matters — we might very well be on our way to the Legal Transformation Project‘s suggested outcome of a future filled with megafirms and boutiques.
But we might also keep this in mind: the Alternative Business Structure (ABS) provisions of the UK’s Legal Services Act come into effect next fall, and any law firm aiming to be a global powerhouse would want to consider all available options to finance and pursue such a strategy. And I do know this: any global law firm with an office in Canada and with access to global private capital would turn this country’s legal profession upside down, from acquiring talent to investing in online infrastructure to marketing its brand to forcing law societies across Canada to look hard at regulations surrounding non-lawyer investment in or ownership of law firms.
This is all extremely early days yet, and the merger won’t even take effect until next June. But my feeling is that something very big happened in this country’s legal profession yesterday. The sudden deregulation of financial markets in England on October 27, 1986, has come to be called the “Big Bang,” and the coming introduction of ABSs in England & Wales on October 6, 2011, has already been anointed as the legal profession’s own explosion. Well, that was one very loud sound we heard across Canada on November 15, 2010.