In one the biggest merger and acquisition announcements in the state’s legal community in recent years, Jackson-based Watkins Ludlam Winter & Stennis, P.A., one of Mississippi’s largest law firms, is combining with Jones, Walker, Waechter, Poitevent, Carrere & Denegre, LLP, of New Orleans.
The two firms, which announced the merger last week, expect the transaction to be finalized on or before Jan. 1, 2012.
Mississippi College’s dean of the school of law Dean Rosenblatt believes this puts Watkins Ludlum on the same footing with the biggest firms in the South.
“(Many) firms grow by bringing new attorneys and practice areas into the firm, opening new branch offices, and hiring additional staff,” Rosenblatt said. “This latter approach — used by Butler Snow, for example — has the advantage of ensuring the culture of the firm is maintained, but it takes longer.
“I am certain that both Jones Walker and Watkins Ludlam hope to work as one firm, but to maintain the culture that has made Watkins Ludlam successful and respected in Mississippi,” Rosenblatt continued. “In a way it is like a marriage — one hopes that the partners will be compatible and work well as a couple while maintaining their own flavor and personality.”
Watkins Ludlum CEO Dennis Miller says the growth is strategic in nature.
“While a number of firms have approached just over the last few years alone, Jones Walker presented a picture that focused on strategic growth in such a way that they simply stood out,” Miller said.
With approximately 75 attorneys, Watkins Ludlam ranks as Mississippi’s third largest law firm. In addition to Jackson, the law firm that was founded in 1905 has offices in Gulfport and Olive Branch.
“Watkins Ludlam likely will see some management decision making for the firm move to New Orleans,” Rosenblatt said. “The folks at Watkins Ludlam will be required to make adjustments in their operations and administration in their new role as part of the Jones Walker firm.”
This merger marks Jones Walker’s entry into the Mississippi market. It also immediately transforms Watkins Ludlam into a regional firm.
Founded in 1934, Jones Walker has offices in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette in Louisiana; Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile in Alabama; Houston and The Woodlands in Texas; Miami; Phoenix; and, Washington, D.C.
Pre-merger, Jones Walker counts 300 attorneys, 159 partners and 300 support staff.
The combined firm, which will operate as Jones Walker, will be led by William Hines, managing partner at Jones Walker.
“We had been talking about Watkins Ludlam for years,” said Hines, whose father and grandfather were Jackson natives and who holds fond memories of riding the train from New Orleans to visit family.
Hines said Watkins Ludlam was in the situation Jones Walker found itself in a little over a decade ago – a large, local firm looking to increase its presence. In the late 1990s, Jones Walker launched its efforts to grow into a regional firm. In 2008 and 2009, Jones Walker acquired two firms in Alabama. But it had no presence in Mississippi, leaving a hole in the firm’s footprint.
Hines said Jones Walker could have entered Mississippi by setting up an office and hiring attorneys from existing local firms.
“If you have to go that route, fine, but we wanted to acquire an entire firm, its culture and prestige,” he said. “Other than the sign out front, most people won’t notice any difference.”
Miller said post-merger, Jones Walker-Mississippi will have approximately 67 attorneys on staff, meaning approximately eight lawyers will be trimmed. Past that, though, no staff reduction is expected.
He said the firm’s leadership told the staff of the prospective merger back in June, and the response has been positive.
“They’re happy because the attorneys are happy,” Miller said with a chuckle.
Hines said, “Quite frankly, this merger will be a failure if the attorneys are not happy.”
He said he expects Jones Walker-Mississippi to grow by bringing in new business, particularly in the area of energy, a strength of Jones Walker. He said the firm was more focused on quality, not quantity.
“My goal is for us to be the best firm in Mississippi,” Hines said.
For more on Watkins Ludlam, visit www.watkinsludlam.com. More information on Jones Walker is available at www.joneswalker.com.