It would take a generous observer of Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) to claim the once sure-footed outfit had managed anything better than an indifferent run in the years preceding its union with Bryan Cave. Having dazzled through the 2000s – a period in which the firm seemed to have single-handedly revived the unfashionable notion of a City mid-tier – the last five years have been a stark contrast. Volatile financial performance, a disastrous run of partner recruitment and tension over its property-heavy direction – all in, it was unclear where the firm was going.
As such, confirmation earlier this year that BLP was uniting with a solid US operator, but one whose brand had limited potency in Europe, did not quicken the pulse.
Nevertheless, sentiment has warmed somewhat as the first integrated transatlantic merger of note for more than a decade went live last month. That is largely because of the absence of immediate fall-out, not an inconsiderable achievement with something as complex as a large US/UK merger. The signals are that the partnership’s mood now ranges between genuine enthusiasm and another group willing to give the tie-up considerable benefit of the doubt, sentiments topped off with relief that BLP has finally taken its mooted BIG STEP. Judging these kinds of combinations – the deals that can get done in the real world rather than the fairytales partners tell themselves – that’s about the best you can hope for.
Judging these combinations – the deals that get done in the real world – the absence of fallout is the best you can hope for.
And to give due credit, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP)’s co-chairs Therese Pritchard and Lisa Mayhew in this month’s interview give a credible and frank account of the thinking behind the tie-up. The near-decade of evidence amassed on the performance of multi-profit-centre law firms has so far done nothing to substantiate the claims their supporters made that the model had no negative impact on partner alignment or client service. Verein-backed law firms have in general been outperformed by comparable integrated rivals in the last five years. Under the circumstances, BCLP’s focus on immediate financial and governance union is laudable. It is also promising that there is talk of pressing for a more driven culture. BLP had reached the limits of what could be achieved with its real estate business. Fresh progress will require pushing further outside its heartlands, even if there will be scepticism of its scope to improve dramatically in mainstream transactional disciplines. No-one disputes that BCLP needs to show it can be a home for ambitious lawyers beyond property in Europe. The firm will also benefit from a substantial cash injection, having just sold its 62% stake in Lawyers On Demand, a move that should have fetched a decent sum (it is, however, surprising it did not retain a modest stake as a tactical investment).
Ultimately, success will hinge on if BCLP proves something like a genuine merger rather than the graceless, grudge-strewn takeovers that have so far defined legal tie-ups across the Atlantic. And that will take a lot more than some warm fuzzies from the troops and some fluent communication from the top at the first partners’ conference in Florida. But it is a start.
For more on BCLP see our interview with BCLP’s Lisa Mayhew and Therese Pritchard: Eyes on ‘the prize’ – BCLP’s leaders on going all-in for transatlantic union