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What’s in a name? A lot more than one might think, seeing that Meritas — the new name for the law firm network Commercial Law Affiliation — has also brought unification, upgrades and technological advancements to the table. In March, Philadelphia’s Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young beefed up its networking artillery by signing on to Meritas, an integrated group of full-service law firms that provides the network’s business clients worldwide access to legal services. As a network of approximately 200 business law firms, Meritas coordinates the services of close to 5,000 attorneys worldwide in order to deliver service to many of its internationally located business clients. Stradley Ronon has been a member of the network for about six of its 13 years of existence. “We had to take CLA to the next level,” founding Meritas board member and Stradley Ronon partner Bennett Picker said. “We tried to find a name that showed that we were on a unified platform.” Taking the cue from a number of other firms that had shortened their longer titles, the organization replaced its three-word label with the Latin word Meritas, meaning merit. “Affiliation sounded loose,” Picker said. “The one-name institution displays to the world that we have the fabric of a unified organization.” The global network convened its lawyers, from as far as China and Europe, to California in March for its annual meeting to discuss overall directions and goals. “We’re almost an extended family,” Picker said. Membership in this group of firms is no easy feat. Meritas relies on the recommendations solicited from nearby member firms, contacts and clients. In addition, the organization stringently screens its financial markets in order to find prime geographic locations to recruit new members. “What makes this concept work is that there is a very high level of quality within the firms that participate in the network,” Cherry Hill, N.J., law firm consultant Joel Rose said. The technological upgrades that accompany the name change include an online reporting system for clients to comment on their satisfaction with a Meritas law firm. This can create repercussions, since Meritas is one of the few affiliations that actually closes its doors on members for downturns in services and quality, having given an estimated six firms the boot so far, Picker said. Picking and choosing among a long list of law firms may have the potential for confusion, but a centralized billing option with standard rates is a new feature that counters this concern. Rose said that these types of networks have existed for 30 years, evolving from informal associations. By drawing on the resources of firms scattered throughout the world, corporations receive the wide-reaching team of legal representation. All hope is apparently not lost for mid-sized law firms like Stradley Ronon, fighting to tread water amidst a market brimming with larger, national and international firms. “One of the principal reasons these networks exist is to provide small size firms the resources to compete with larger international law firms,” Rose said. Stradley Ronon, whose offices do not stretch much farther than the northeast, can still effectively represent client interests across the globe as a partner within Meritas. While larger firms may have the wide range of locations from which to service their clients, many midsize firms lack this option. Meritas is an attempt to level the playing field by fusing the efforts of midsize offices around the globe and focusing them on its various corporate clients. “They pride themselves upon having more law firms than they have clients,” Wayne, N.J.-based law firm consultant Robert Denney said. Nonetheless, their list of big-name clients is rather extensive, including Aetna, Bank of America, Microsoft, General Motors, Motorola, McDonald’s and numerous others. The organization goes beyond a mere communication network. It is also a support system that holds seminars and training programs for lawyers in member firms, Denney added. Different law firms cooperating with one another to achieve a common goal seems a little too unrealistic in a field fueled by rivalry. But, the network weeds out competition by selectively choosing one representative firm from each major geographical area. Since a firm in Philadelphia does not have the prime location to service a corporate office in a city like Austin, Texas, it can search within the Meritas network to find a provider in or near that market. On the other hand, Picker pointed out that a number of these firms are national operations, so that a minimal amount of competition becomes inevitable. Competition within the affiliation itself may be negligible, but similar associations are also itching to expand their base of corporate clientele. The American Law Firm Association, a slightly larger network, has its own set of international sites, with German Gallagher & Murtagh servicing Philadelphia. As corporations have seeped into new markets to service more customer locations, legal services have been at their heels, matching these expansions with significant ones of their own. Rose said the creation of a midsize law firm network has gone beyond merely leveling the playing field, by actually surpassing the capabilities of larger law firms. These associations consistently recruit members in each major economic center in the world at a faster pace than most large law firms can fund the construction of new office sites. “Our firms do not have to open up other offices, because we can operate through other existing firm locations,” Picker said. “But, firms always can [open new offices] if they find it necessary to their individual practices.”

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