Biglaw, Law Firm Mergers, Law Firm Names

Law Firm Merger Mania: Fulbright & Jaworski Smells Sweet to Norton Rose

Law firm mergers seem to be popping up as frequently as, well, problematic emails between married generals and their gal pals. Just a week after SNR Denton’s three-way merger with international firm Salans and Canadian firm Fraser Milner Casgrain, we’re learning of another law firm combination with Canadian and European elements.

This morning brings word of a merger between the global law firm of Norton Rose and the international but U.S.-based law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski. As you may recall, Fulbright has been the subject of merger buzz before — including rumors that featured Norton Rose as suitor.

How big will the new firm be, and what name will it operate under?

Here’s a report from Jennifer Smith of the WSJ Law Blog:

Global law firm Norton Rose is merging with the U.S. firm Fulbright & Jaworski LLP to create a 3,800-lawyer enterprise that will be among the world’s largest law firms.

The union had been rumored for months and is the latest in a series of big cross-border law firm mergers this year. Firm leaders announced the combination on Wednesday morning, and said the transaction would be completed on June 1, 2013. The firm will be known globally as Norton Rose Fulbright and will have 55 offices worldwide.

(Sorry, Leon Jaworski. But your place in history is safe, thanks to your Watergate work.)

The move will give Fulbright, which was founded in Houston and has long been a dominant player in energy work, expanded international reach.

Norton Rose in turn gets a foothold in the lucrative U.S. legal market, where it has been shopping openly for a partner for some time.

“We have been looking at the U.S. market for a number of years,” Peter Martyr, Global Chief Executive of Norton Rose said in a news release. “Fulbright & Jaworski meets all our criteria; it is financially strong, with forward-looking management and similar strategic growth aspirations.”

We’ve posted the full news release on the next page. The release notes that Norton Rose Fulbright “will be a top 10 global legal practice by gross revenue and by number of lawyers.” That seems about right. On the American Lawyer’s most recent Global 100 list, Norton Rose by itself was #8 in attorney headcount; adding all the Fulbright folks will only push it higher.

(The footnote in the Am Law Global 100 for Norton Rose, by the way, provides a mini-history of the firm: “Joined with Ogilvy Renault and Deneys Reitz in June 2011 and with MacLeod Dixon in January 2012. Norton Rose was designated as U.K. for home country (the firm was founded in and managed from the United Kingdom) even though the biggest concentration of lawyers is in Canada.”)

Would a law firm by any other name smell as sweet?

As for leadership of Norton Rose Fulbright, Peter Martyr, current global chief executive of Norton Rose, will be the global chief executive of Norton Rose Fulbright. Kenneth L. Stewart, who was set to take over as chair of Fulbright’s executive committee, will serve as managing partner of Norton Rose Fulbright’s U.S. operations and will hold a senior position on the combined organization’s global executive committee.

How do people at Fulbright feel about the merger? Here’s what one associate told us:

Opinions are mixed here. There are a lot of issues when merging two huge firms. Not sure what the new structure does for conflicts (there may be a degree of separation between a parent company and the U.S. part). We also are not sure how it will affect areas that are more fee sensitive. Associates in those areas are concerned because hitting budgets in our billable rates is already hard. The current line is that it will not affect anything on fees. One aspect seems nice: the merged firm will likely push to increase our coastal presence in NY and CA.

Also, from an associate perspective, it seems like the Fulbright management is supposed to maintain a good amount of control over the U.S. part — this could be good, but we don’t really know what the effects will be on partnership decisions. The uncertainty is a little concerning for more senior associates.

The combination brings uncertainty, but also excitement and dynamism. If the future of high-end legal practice belongs to global giants and elite boutiques, as some prognosticators believe it does, then this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Congratulations to Norton Rose and Fulbright & Jaworski on their nuptials, and good luck to them as they navigate a rapidly changing global marketplace for legal services.

UPDATE (10:50 PM): Another Fulbright associate shared this information and optimistic take:

We learned today that hiring, firing, salary, and partnership decisions will remain within the U.S. offices, and Fulbright, with about 30% of the control on the global level, will have a significant amount of input in proportion to other entities in the partnership. The U.S. structure will likely change slightly to be more practice-based rather than location based.

For junior associates, the move seems extremely positive — increased opportunities on a global level, new clients, the ability to work in other offices, and more flexibility to develop your practice in new ways. Our resources have just expanded exponentially. There is even talk of opening a Norton Rose Fulbright Brazil office sometime in 2013.

Fabulous! Fulbright associates might know how to square dance, but it sounds like some samba lessons might be in order.

(Feel free to flip to the next page to read the full press release.)

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