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America or bust: Ashurst on the hunt for US merger partner

Ashurst is understood to be pursuing merger partners in the US as a strategic priority, rekindling its aspirations towards a stateside combination.

No discussions have reached a formal stage, however, it is believed the firm has been seeking a merger partner since before the pandemic.

According to global chief executive Paul Jenkins: ‘We are continuing to strengthen our presence in the US. We have 15 partners there at present, and over the last year this growth has included the appointment of Wes Strickland and relocation of partner Jon Turner to Los Angeles from the UK, as well as several counsel and associate hires and promotions. Our current sectoral strength in the US includes infrastructure, and financial institutions-related work.

‘Where we are strong sector-wise globally – including those two areas, and also the digital economy, real estate, energy transition and funds – we see the need to do more in the US over time. It’s no surprise that it is a strategic priority for us, as it is for many firms, and it has been a strategic priority since prior to the pandemic.’

As outlined in our 2019 deep-dive on Ashurst, the firm has been in various courtships for a US tie-up since the millennium. Still described as the best deal that never happened, merger talks in 2000 between Ashurst senior partner Geoffrey Green, managing partner Ian Nisse and Latham & Watkins chair Robert Dell came to nothing thanks to a mutual suspicion of compensation structures. Besides Sidley Austin in 2013, another credible suitor was Fried Frank in 2002/03. Other US firms that Ashurst has been linked with over the years include Mayer Brown and White & Case.

The watercoolers of peer firms are abuzz around potential suitors, with names including Crowell & Moring, Locke Lord and Orrick put forward by market sources claiming knowledge. The latter two firms would make the most sense, with notable synergies in infrastructure and finance. All three would considerably expand Ashurst’s American footprint, which currently amounts to two offices in New York and Los Angeles. For context, a tie-up with any of the three firms would add offices in San Francisco and Washington DC.

A US merger would be a suitable progression for the firm after stabilising the ship in recent years – turnover stuttered in the years immediately following Ashurst’s 2013 merger with Australia’s Blake Dawson, but since Jenkins took over in 2016, revenue has jumped by 40% with an average annual growth rate of over 7%.