Part of a recent wave of law firm mergers, Boardman & Clark looks to future

According to the Hildebrandt Institute, which tracks legal business trends, U.S. law firm mergers spiked dramatically in 2011, increasing 67% over the previous year and reflecting a trend that the organization expects to continue into 2012.

Among the first to drive that trend into the New Year were two Madison-area law firms, Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field and Lathrop & Clark, which officially formed a new partnership on Jan. 1, becoming Boardman & Clark LLP.

Hildebrandt saw the relatively few mergers completed in 2010 as a reflection of the slowdown in the economy, which resulted in a lower demand for legal services. But according to Boardman & Clark officials, this merger was more a result of the complementarity of the two firms than any external economic factors.

“I think a good way to summarize the reasons for this merger is to talk about both depth and breadth of practice areas,” said Frank Sutherland, a member of the new firm’s executive committee and an attorney who had worked with Lathrop & Clark.

According to Sutherland, the merger allows the firm to bring together a number of teams to add depth to the new company – for example, a business team and a trust and estates team that have gained strength in numbers and expertise.

In addition, the merger has allowed the new company, which is now the second largest law firm in the Madison area, to fill in practice areas that were previously absent.

“We have some good examples of situations in which as a combined firm, we can now offer a broader range of services,” said Sutherland. “So, for example, the prior Boardman firm has had a longstanding and very prominent banking law group, and that is an area in which the former Lathrop firm did not have that depth of expertise and experience. On the other hand, the former Lathrop firm brings into the new firm a school law practice that is one of the leading school law practices in the state and is in kind of a specialized area in which the former Lathrop firm has been well known.

“Similarly, the former Lathrop firm has an intellectual property department that combines with Boardman for much stronger practice in the area of patent trademark and copyright.”

Richard Heinemann, an attorney who worked with the former Boardman firm and who also serves on Boardman & Clark’s executive committee, agreed that the merger has strengthened the combined firm’s practice.

“I think we both were looking to enhance our services and then add kinds of services, the range of services that we can offer to our clients,” said Heinemann. “And we saw in each other’s existing firms a lot of complementarity.”

Part of a trend

While the economy continues to lag and the recovery is halting at best, Sutherland says that this merger positions Boardman & Clark for success, regardless of what the trends are.

“Since roughly 2008, there has been some shake-out in the legal marketplace, just as there has been in many areas due to the slowdown of the economy, so that generally speaking, hiring has slowed down in many private firms,” said Sutherland. “One of the things that we are excited about is to be able, within that economic climate, to be taking a very positive step forward to strengthen our organization and to put ourselves in what we think is a better position to serve clients well going into the future.”

According to Hildebrandt, the number of law firm mergers is heading back toward pre-recessionary levels (which were at approximately 55 mergers per year). The creation of Boardman & Clark was part of a flurry of announced mergers at the beginning of 2012, perhaps auguring more such activity to come.

Both Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field and Lathrop & Clark had roots that went back more than a century – Boardman was one of the oldest law firms in Wisconsin, and dated back to the start of Robert LaFollette’s law practice in 1881. So it goes without saying that neither party went into this merger lightly. According to Heinemann, “it wasn’t something that happened overnight.”

But while Boardman & Clark may be helping to drive this trend, the firm is more concerned about its own future – one that looks brighter now than it did before.

“I don’t know that in our particular instance our decision to come together was driven by any of these broader trends,” said Heinemann. “In our case, there wasn’t a specific triggering event, but we saw this as an opportunity that we were pretty excited to pursue.”

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