currency fluctuations

“A bridge too far” : When international law firm mergers turn sour

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“There were a lot of people who thought there wasn’t a very deliberative process around the decision, and a lot of people wondering how it would help us,” one partner said. “And when it didn’t go well, there were a lot of people who thought it was a bridge too far.”

The above quote is attributed to a K&L Gates partner in a recent Above The Law post by David Lat (‘Barbarians At The K&L Gates?‘), which was then linked to in Bloomberg BNA’s Business of Law overnight (‘Wake Up Call: What’s Going On At K&L Gates?‘), and is said to relate to the firm’s biggest single merger to-date, its deal with Middletons two years ago, which, apparently, has “has failed to bear fruit.

First off, I don’t think K&L Gates’ merger with Middletons is alone here. Market chatter would indicate that a number of partners at international law firms who merged with prominent Australian law firm brands have since wondered what they got themselves into. On the flip-side, a number of the partners in the prominent law firms who merged with the international firms have felt likewise and since moved on.

So while not unique, what probably differentiates the K&L Gates situation is also, in my opinion, one of its greatest strengths – its transparency and openness.

In any event, to my mind what this story highlights is two issues:

  1. mergers between international law firms are akin to the courting stage in any joint venture arrangement: a lot of trust is given on both sides without much due diligence.
  2. when things turn sour in international law firm mergers, lots of reasons get cited by all parties; but rarely, if ever, is the reason that they hadn’t discussed the merger properly with the clients of both (all) firms to see if the client had  any perspective on this merger (e.g., commercial conflicts, lack of trust, etc.) and whether they would support (financially) the merger.

I will add that it would be a great shame if the K&L Gates / Middletons merger turned into a public spat, because I really liked the legacy Australian firm of Middletons and given Australia’s interaction with the US market I believe there is a place for K&L Gates here.

That said with the A$ tipped to go below US70¢, its lowest level since the merger, the partners on both sides of the Pacific need to:

  • reiterate why they merged,
  • communicate this with their clients,

and move forward on that basis.

And do this quickly [preferably at, or before, the next global partners’ meeting] – something law firms are not known for!

Again though, I doubt very much that K&L Gates will be alone among international law firms in Australia having these discussions.

Foreign exchange woes hurt Australian arm of K&L Gates

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Back in March 2013 I wrote a blog post on how foreign currency fluctuations were likely going to hurt international law firms with a presence in Australia, over the following 12-18 months, unless the firms hedged against this exposure.

Not wishing to be one who says “told you so”, but a report in today’s Australian newspaper (‘Exchange movements take their toll on global law firm K & L Gates‘ [subscription required to read whole article]) affords me the luxury of being able to say exactly that.

According to the article,

“[K&L Gates] global revenue increased by 9.3 per cent last year due to the merger with Australia’s Middletons…”


“…things would have been much better had the US dollar not appreciated by 6.8 per cent relative to the Australian dollar…”

As the Australian sets out, it is largely thanks to the extraordinary level of financial transparency on the part of K&L Gates that we are able to ascertain the effect that currency fluctuations have had on the firm, and the firm should be highly commended for this.

That said, it is highly unlikely that K&L Gates will be the only international law firm with a presence in Australia that will be affected by this. Even firms who have to report in British Pounds or Euros, as opposed to US dollars, will likely have felt this effect on their balance sheets. The only real question is the level of effect it has had.

And the warning I put out there to the Australian partners of international firms largely remains in tact:

in order to keep your fellow partners happy in London, New York or Chicago, your Australian-based revenue will need to increase by approximately 10 to 20 per cent over the next 12 months for you just to standstill.

So before you agree to any increased revenue target budget, keep in mind the compound effect foreign currency movement are likely to have on your commitment.

Alternatively, you could get a commitment from your offshore partners that they refer work into you on which you can charge offshore currency rates – say US dollars; in which case, you could get away with working about 10 per cent less over the next 12 months.

And who said being a law firm partner was easy!