It was only two years ago that Pittsburgh-based Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney pulled off the second-largest merger in its history with the acquisition of 90-lawyer Fowler White Boggs and its five offices in Florida.

Now, the firm is on the hunt again, seeking to fill geographical needs on the East Coast, and in California and Texas.

The point man for all this is incoming CEO and chairman, Joe Dougherty, who will take the reins June 1. Dougherty, who is Philly-based and is the first Buchanan chair outside Pittsburgh, sees no urgent need to grow, and says the firm will be picky about expansion.

But growth is critical for the firm to keep and attract high-end clients. "We need to grow," Dougherty said. "It's funny how a 500-lawyer firm is no longer a big firm. It's crazy."

Dougherty began as an employment lawyer with Duane Morris and moved to the smaller Pittsburgh-based firm of Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling. Six months after the job change, in 2006, Buchanan Ingersoll merged with Klett Rooney, which then had about 130 lawyers. That remains the firm's largest merger so far.

It not only took Dougherty to Buchanan Ingersoll, but also Arthur Rooney II, co-owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rooney is of counsel at Buchanan, which now handles legal work for the Steelers.

Dougherty's focus on growth is a common refrain among firms with 100 to 800 lawyers. After the market collapse in 2008, when law firms laid off lawyers in droves, the future of big law seemed uncertain.

A debate ensued. Was it better to be small, with lower costs and more attractive rates, or should firms expand, with national and even global platforms, vacuuming up clients far and wide?

Growth seems to have won out. Law firm mergers and acquisitions hit a record last year, legal consulting firm Altman Weil of Newtown Square found. In February, Center City's Blank Rome announced the acquisition of Washington-based Dickstein Shapiro, adding over 100 lawyers.

Dougherty, 56, says clients need geographic breadth and bench strength. The firm added to its reach with the acquisition of Fowler White, but the firm might need a presence elsewhere on the East Coast, perhaps Atlanta. "I am very interested in the Southeast," he said.

Buchanan works with a consultant to identify potential merger candidates. But opportunities can emerge from connections. Such was the case with Fowler White. Talks began initially because of Dougherty's long friendship with a Fowler White partner in Fort Myers, Fla., Carl Joseph Coleman.

He lived across the hall from Dougherty when the two were freshman at Georgetown University, and they maintained contact. Dougherty used Fowler White as local counsel and suggested the firm as a merger partner to his colleagues at Buchanan.

Dougherty, who specializes in post-employment disputes in which employers seek to enforce noncompetition agreements and protect trade secrets, will be a full-time CEO as of June 1, and for the last nine months has been transitioning clients to colleagues.

He lives in Villanova with his wife, Elizabeth, a teacher at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, and twin 16-year-old sons, Fitz and Jack.

He admits to a mix of reactions seeing clients getting representation, especially in court, from other lawyers. But he expects to continue to provide strategic advice, even as he looks forward to a new role. ""I am excited about it," he said. "I like trying cases, but I am getting itchy to do something new and different."

cmondics@phillynews.com

215-854-5957@cmondics