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Law firm mergers on the rise

Law firms mergers shot up nationally in 2011 after a precipitous decline

The legal consulting firm Altman Weil reports that law firm mergers increased 53 percent across the nation last year, following a sharp drop off in 2009 and 2010. Four Philadelphia area firms acquired law firms outside the city last year. They are Fox Rothschild, which picked up a small intellectual property group in downtown Los Angeles, Saul Ewing, which added lawyers in Boston, Blank Rome, which expanded in Houston, and Archer Greiner of Haddonfield, which merged with the north Jersey firm of Herten Burstein.

There were 60 law firm mergers across the nation last year, Altman Weil said, matching exactly the number of mergers in 2007, when the legal business still was booming. Mergers increased to 70 in 2008, reflecting deals that already were in the pipeline, but dropped off sharply after that.

The renewed interest in mergers and geographic expansion reflects new confidence by firms that the worst of the decline in the legal market place is past, at least for now.

"We saw a dip during the recession," says Altman Weil principal Ward Bower. "Nobody was concentrating on strategy. Everyone was concentrating on survival. Now that we are out of the recession, and although it is not a strong recovery by any means, it has inspired a lot of confidence in a lot of firms who are looking to grow again."

The increase in law firm mergers follows other signs that the legal market is stabilizing following the layoffs and pay cuts that shook many firms during the recession. An earlier survey by Altman Weil found that corporate legal departments spent more on legal services last year than they did in 2010.