Milwaukee-based von Briesen & Roper, a 192-lawyer regional firm with offices in three states, added 25 total lawyers this week by acquiring two law firms in its own backyard.

In each of the past two years, von Briesen & Roper has grown by absorbing smaller Wisconsin firms, a trend it expects to continue into 2018. The firm has now added 22 lawyers and all of the staff from trial-focused Peterson, Johnson & Murray. Also joining forces with von Briesen & Roper are the three lawyers and staff of Levine & Bazelon, a real estate shop in Milwaukee.

Both small firms had been around for 35 years, and their leaders cited the investments in technology that von Briesen & Roper has made as helping them expand their practices. Von Briesen & Roper was among the first firms to license ROSS Intelligence, a legal research platform that relies in part on International Business Machines Corp.’s Watson artificial intelligence system.

“I have seen the impact that technology and specialization have upon advocacy and know that the expanded areas of expertise, the technology and the culture [at von Briesen & Roper] will help me deliver the results in the important matters I am honored to handle,” said a statement by Terry Johnson, the former managing partner of Peterson Johnson.

Small firms merging with larger regional or national firms were the leading factor in a recent report by Altman Weil Inc.’s MergerLine that chronicled a record year for law firm combinations. The legal consulting outfit, which has been tracking U.S. legal industry mergers for 16 years, found that 102 tie-ups occurred in 2017. Many small firms find the increasing costs of technology as a barrier to growth.

“All I know is this: With these firms that are smaller, our software, licensing, hardware and tools are far and away [from] what they’ve had,” said von Briesen & Roper president and CEO Randall Crocker, adding that after a full day of training on the firm’s software tools the new lawyers’ “eyes were pretty wide open.”

A flurry of acquisitions, if not outright mergers, are already off to a brisk pace in 2018. Duane Morris brought on the bulk of insurance boutique Vocke Law Group, while dissolving Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based firm Rhoads & Sinon saw large groups of lawyers decamp this week for leading local shops like Barley Snyder and Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott. In New York, Sadis Goldberg absorbed the remnants of suburban White Plains, New York-based financial services and corporate boutique Marino Partners.

Milwaukee’s legal market was shaken up in 2016 as a result of the merger between Husch Blackwell and leading local firm Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek—a tie-up that last year resulted in layoffs at the combined firm. (In an interesting wrinkle to that deal, the former nonlawyer leader of Whyte Hirschboeck has taken over as CEO of Husch Blackwell.)

In 2016, von Briesen & Roper also absorbed 14 lawyers from the dissolving Weiss Berzowski, a business law firm in Milwaukee. Last year von Briesen & Roper picked up the six-lawyer labor and employment practice of the Simandl Law Group, a firm shuttering its operations in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha.

Crocker said his firm’s growth has been “spontaneous,” with small firm leaders reaching out to him (in the case of its most recent acquisitions), and Crocker sometimes calling around to other firms to gauge their interest in potential combinations. Von Briesen & Roper has been able to handle bigger transactions and litigation matters with larger discovery requirements as a result of its recent growth, he said.

“I think the midsize firm is the future for the mainstay of the legal business that’s being done in the world,” Crocker said. “I’m very optimistic about the future of [our] firm and future of the profession.”


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