Bottom Line: Few choices for Eastern promise

Elizabeth Fournier
FOR a while, mergers between UK and US law firms were all the rage. Throughout 2010-12 you could hardly move without a new transatlantic alliance being inked and diplomatic name combinations being dreamed up – from Hogan Lovells and Dentons to Squire Sanders.
But more recently, law firms’ expansionary ambitions have been firmly focused eastwards. Ashurst swallowed Sydney-based Blake Dawson early last March and by October, when Herbert Smith merged with Australia’s Freehills, the trend was firmly underway. But yesterday’s deal was different.
The KWM/SJ Berwin tie-up – which will see founder Stanley J Berwin’s name disappear from the legal landscape in a few years – is the first time a big UK practice has merged with an Asian firm, and management is absolutely clear it was the right place to go. But though the draw of an Asia Pacific combination is compelling, that doesn’t mean this will be the first of many. China’s legal market – while fast growing – is still well behind the US and UK in terms of both quality and scale. SJ Berwin has done well to be the first – others may have to look harder.