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Comment: Merging BLP and Greenberg Traurig – unique, compelling, bloody difficult

In the age of the anodyne corporate law firm, you can at least say a marriage of Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) and Greenberg Traurig would be a distinct beast. If the talks are successful, it would be the first major international deal built on the foundation of real estate.

It would also be the first financially integrated US/UK tie-up of any consequence for years, given that the pair have ruled out a verein-based semi-merger. Both points look in favour of the marriage: there is a place in the global legal market for a real estate-heavy player and on the evidence of the last five years, the multi-profit centre unions have been indifferent performers.

But putting these two together will be grabbing the proverbial tiger by the tail. Both entrepreneurial and individualistic outfits, there is the additional complication of combining the Greenberg Traurig Maher London operation, itself not short of robust characters. Greenberg has long been regarded as one of the most thrusting major firms in the US, deploying an aggressive lateral hire programme to drive expansion beyond its Florida heartlands. Former chief executive Cesar Alvarez once memorably summed up its no-nonsense culture: ‘Everyone likes to argue about the intangible value that they contribute. But I say: “If you want to be rewarded for intangible value, then there’s a hug – that’s intangible.”‘

Still, Greenberg’s been much less expansive than during the 2000s. The firm launched in London to much fanfare with the recruitment of M&A veteran Paul Maher in 2009, but despite substantial hiring, the practice has yet to challenge bigger firms in the Square Mile. For the five years to the end of the 2010 financial year, Greenberg has hardly been in growth mode, with revenues growing just 8% to $1.27bn, even having absorbed a sizeable team from Dewey & LeBoeuf. After relatively modest progress internationally in recent years, Greenberg did last summer make a well-regarded move with the recruitment of a profitable 14-partner team in Germany from Olswang.

BLP, of course, has faced its own reverses, most notably during a torrid 2012/13 that saw its profitability plummet amid over-expansion and controversial use of guarantees. Scars from that period and a subsequent restructuring have endured and were in evidence in a bruising, factional managing partner contest that saw Lisa Mayhew defeat David Collins last year. While the firm spent much of the 2000s talking up its corporate and banking practices, its real estate practice is now more dominant than ever.

Real estate is unsurprisingly positive about the deal, as is the firm’s disputes practice (litigation is Greenberg’s largest business generator). Some are predicting considerable ructions in BLP’s transactional business if the union goes ahead. Also interesting would be the mood at BLP’s much-touted Lawyers On Demand (LOD), which has just secured its first major deal after last month agreeing a merger with Australian business AdventBalance; the fast-growing LOD has in recent years appeared to want more distance from its parent.

Should the deal not go ahead, BLP is left with the challenge of trying to achieve its current strategy of being the world’s top real estate and infrastructure law firm, an aim that looks near impossible to fulfil without something substantive in the US. Some believe that a US deal is the end game.

However this pans out, for BLP this is a going to be quite a show in the next few years. A BLP/Greenberg merger looks compelling on practice and geographic fit, but this is one deal where the challenge won’t be bridging different cultures – it’s what they have in common.