Latest U.S. law firm merger brings Southeast’s Womble to San Francisco

Signage is seen at the legal offices of the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • Womble to gain 17 lawyers from Cooper, White & Cooper, effective Sept. 1
  • Completed deals picked up in Q2 after a slower Q1, recent figures show

(Reuters) – Womble Bond Dickinson is entering the San Francisco market through a combination with small regional law firm Cooper, White & Cooper, the firms said Wednesday.

Womble, a 1,000-lawyer firm with roots in North Carolina and the United Kingdom, has three other offices in California, including in nearby Silicon Valley. Northern California has been a hotspot for large firm expansion in recent years, as firms eye more technology-related work.

Womble said it is adding 17 lawyers from Cooper, White & Cooper in the combination effective Sept. 1. The smaller firm has two offices in the Bay Area and does litigation and transactional work.

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The deal comes the same week as Greenspoon Marder, another large firm founded in the Southeastern U.S., absorbed nine lawyers from Los Angeles bankruptcy law firm SulmeyerKupetz.

Legal industry consultants have said factors like a fierce battle for attorney talent and pressure to match their competitors’ scale are driving firms of all sizes to add lawyers and consider chasing growth through mergers.

Betty Temple, CEO and chair of Womble, said the firm is expanding to “innovation centers” where clients are moving and growing. The firm has also opened new offices this year in Nashville and New York.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Greenspoon Marder, which has about 200 lawyers, said on Monday the firm has added lawyers and staff from SulmeyerKupetz. A Greenspoon Marder spokesperson confirmed that the smaller firm is no longer operating.

Law firm merger activity dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic. Firm mergers fell starting in 2020 — with 40 completed deals for the year compared to 59 in 2019 — slowed by the difficulty of finalizing deals virtually and by firm leaders’ focus on internal operations at the outset of the pandemic.

Such deals now show signs of rebounding. After a slower start to the year, law firm consultancy Fairfax Associates tracked 11 completed combinations in the second quarter of 2022, up from seven in that period in 2021. Mergers in Q2 of 2022 mainly involved small firms.

There were a total of 25 mergers in the first half of 2022, according to Fairfax, which counts mergers by the date they become effective. That’s still well below the historical first half average for firm mergers over the past 10 years, which Fairfax said is 32 combinations.

Lisa Smith, a principal at Fairfax, said in a recent interview she anticipates the number of completed deals in 2022 will outpace 2021 and 2020, “barring some significant headwinds in the economy.” But pre-pandemic numbers likely will not return until 2023, she said.

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Sara Merken

Thomson Reuters

Sara Merken reports on privacy and data security, as well as the business of law, including legal innovation and key players in the legal services industry. Reach her at sara.merken@thomsonreuters.com

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