Buchanan Ingersoll in Merger Talks With Fla. Firm

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Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney is deep into merger talks with Tampa-based Fowler White Boggs, according to top management of both firms.

"Florida is a growth state and an important market for our firm, and more importantly, our clients," said Buchanan Ingersoll CEO John A. "Jack" Barbour in a statement. "Fowler White enjoys a stellar reputation in Florida, and we have discussed with them how a combination would enhance both firms' capabilities to service clients and further each of our strategic objectives. Discussions are ongoing so it would be premature for me to speculate on the outcome."

Fowler White CEO and Chair Rhea Law also confirmed the merger talks, saying Buchanan Ingersoll "has a very expansive number of practice groups and depth in those practice groups. So it's a particularly interesting connection. We are dominant in Florida and they are dominant in the Northeast and those are fast growing areas with good prospects."

Another attraction with Buchanan Ingersoll, she said, is it would allow Fowler White to open an office in Miami. When Fowler White Boggs split from Fowler White Burnett in the late 1960s, a lawsuit settlement stipulated that Fowler White Boggs could not open an office in Miami and Fowler White Burnett could not do so in Tampa. The merger would cure that problem, and sources said they doubted Fowler White Burnett would challenge the issue.

Sources say Fowler White Boggs began talking with Buchanan Ingersoll this summer but is still a couple months away from an announcement. Partners at the firms have not yet voted on the merger and a thorough vetting process is currently under way.

A merger would create a 550-lawyer firm dominated by Buchanan Ingersoll. Buchanan Ingersoll has 450 lawyers in 15 offices primarily throughout the Northeast but also in Florida and California. Fowler White has 97 lawyers in five Florida offices—Tampa, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale.

"I think it's a great idea," said Amy Levin, a recruiter with The Legal Group in Dania Beach, Fla. "Fowler White is a small firm and Buchanan is a national firm. Both firms are looking at growth. This builds a full-service firm for Fowler White and provides an expansion into Florida for Buchanan."

According to sources, Fowler White has been looking to merge with a top 200 law firm for at least a year. Previous talks with Memphis-based Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz fell apart for unknown reasons. More of a transactional law firm, Fowler White has struggled over the last couple years and lost numerous key partners in northern Florida.

Buchanan Ingersoll is no stranger to large-scale mergers, though it has been a few years since the firm entered into a larger deal.

In 2005, Buchanan Ingersoll picked up intellectual property boutique Burns Doane Swecker & Mathis of Alexandria, Va., adding about 60 lawyers.

The firm expanded significantly in 2006 through its intrastate merger with Pittsburgh-based Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling, adding about 250 lawyers, government affairs professionals and staff. That move briefly vaulted the firm into the Am Law 100 before it settled back into the Am Law 200 for the past five years.

Since then, the firm has added a few smaller boutique firms, growing in San Diego in 2007 and adding litigation depth in Pittsburgh more recently.

In 2013, Buchanan Ingersoll was ranked 117th on the Am Law 200 with $265.5 million in gross revenue, $665,000 in profits per equity partner and $650,000 in revenue per lawyer. The firm's 2013 fiscal year ends Jan. 31.

Buchanan Ingersoll has had a presence in South Florida since 1990, maintaining small offices in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa. The firm recently relocated its Aventura office to downtown Fort Lauderdale to be closer to its client base.

Joe Altonji, a law firm consultant for Chicago-based LawVision Group, said he would not be surprised at a merger between the two firms. He expects more mergers to be announced in the coming year, particularly involving Florida firms.

"There is a reality in the current marketplace that if your goal is to grow, there isn't a natural growth in the market right now, so merger activity is going to be hot," he said. "The right firms want to get into Florida, and there's always been this interesting connection between Midwestern firms and Florida."

According to legal consulting firm Altman Weil, 2013 set a record for law firm mergers, with the announcement of 87 combinations last year.

Florida has been a focal point for a number of Pennsylvania-based firms in the last year.

Jack Kessler, managing shareholder of Buchanan Ingersoll's South Florida locations, said last year the move from Aventura to Fort Lauderdale was part of the firm's strategic plan to "ensconce itself in South Florida's growing business market."

Kessler had said that over the years the three counties that comprise the South Florida market have split into three fairly distinct legal markets. The firm is in Miami-Dade County through its Miami office and the Fort Lauderdale location, just 12 miles from Aventura, can better serve the Broward County market, Kessler said. He said the firm feels the new location can handle serving the Broward and Palm Beach County markets, with a potential office opening in Palm Beach down the road. Kessler had said that seems to be the normal progression of firms expanding in South Florida. Fowler White does not have an office in Palm Beach County.

Cozen O'Connor, Duane Morris and Fox Rothschild have all either opened new offices or expanded in existing locations in the South Florida market in the last year.

Kessler had said the market is heating up with new deals and construction projects in the works, a continued influx of investment and people from South America and a resurgence of investment from Europe.

In April, Fox Rothschild opened a Coral Gables, Fla., office near Miami with the hire of two banking attorneys. The firm already had a West Palm Beach location in the state. There are around 25 attorneys between the two offices.

Fox Rothschild managing partner Mark Silow said at the time that Miami "seems to have fully recovered. Things are really booming down there." He said Fox Rothschild has a growing international practice, so the Latin America component was a plus.

In March, Cozen O'Connor opened in West Palm Beach with a team of partners from Edwards Wildman and Duane Morris grew in the region with additional attorneys from Edwards Wildman.

Julie Kay is a reporter for the Daily Business Review, a Legal affiliate based in Florida.

Gina Passarella can be contacted at 215-557-2494 or at gpassarella@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @GPassarellaTLI.

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