Fox Rothschild’s Nov. 1 tie-up with North Carolina-based Smith Moore Leatherwood could mean significant change for Smith Moore’s 20-year-old Atlanta office, according to Fox’s chair, Mark Silow, and Atlanta administrative partner, G. Marshall Kent Jr.
Fox plans to expand the Atlanta office, which now has 18 lawyers, Silow said. By year-end, he said he hopes for it to reach “critical mass” of 25 to 30 lawyers and become full-service in the firm’s core disciplines.
Within five years, Silow said, he’d like to have around 50 lawyers in Atlanta. “That seems to be our sweet spot in terms of where offices get to be,” he said. “Our most successful offices, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis, are in that 45-to-65 range. I would envision that Atlanta would be right there, at least, in five years.”
“Lots of things happen when you have 50 lawyers practicing together,” Silow explained. The ability to generate internal referrals across practice areas improves, and a firm gains greater market impact, he said. “You become a known commodity for other lawyers.”
The Smith Moore acquisition “is the last piece of the footprint we were trying to assemble,” Silow said. “If you looked at the footprint prior to the merger, there was a lot of empty space between Washington, D.C., and West Palm Beach, Florida. We wanted full geographic representation.”
Fox has been on an expansion push, acquiring regional firms in Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle since 2015. With 130 lawyers, Smith Moore is the largest firm it has acquired.
The deal gives the Philadelphia-based Am Law 100 firm an entree to the Southeast, where Smith Moore had six offices in the Carolinas plus Atlanta. Fox has just over 900 lawyers in 27 locations nationally after acquiring the Carolina firm, with about 100 in its Philadelphia office, still the firm’s largest.
The deal puts Fox into “strong business markets” in the Carolinas and Atlanta, Silow said. “Our clients are becoming more national,” he added, since client companies are consolidating the same way law firms are. “To be responsive to client needs we’ve got to match them step for step. Many of our clients have national supply chains or retail locations all over the country–and we have real estate clients developing nationally.”
Kent, the Atlanta administrative partner, said the Fox deal “gives the Smith Moore legacy offices, particularly Atlanta, enhanced legal expertise and the ability to grow, both organically and through lateral hires.”
“Some of us might not recognize the office once the growth culminates,” he added. “Nonetheless, the Atlanta partners have embraced the merger.”
Smith Moore’s predecessor firm, Smith Helms Mulliss & Moore, opened an Atlanta office in 1998 with six lawyers from Hawkins & Parnell (now Hawkins Parnell & Young).
Since then, the Atlanta office has seen periods of expansion and contraction.
The office went from 10 to 23 lawyers in 2007 when Smith Moore acquired one of Atlanta’s oldest law firms, Carter & Ansley, gaining an established insurance coverage litigation practice representing life, health and disability insurers.
It gained Kent and four other lawyers from construction law firm Shapiro Fussell Wedge & Martin when that firm disbanded at the end of 2011. Kent and another Shapiro Fussell lateral, Bob Wedge, also practice bankruptcy law.
The goal of the merger is to cultivate new work, to be “accretive,” Silow said. “We do not just inherit the book of business the [acquired] firm has and bolt it on to our book. We are able to grow both books.”
“One of the things that led us to continue our growth strategy [with] the Smith Moore merger is we’ve seen repeatedly and consistently the benefits of adding good lawyers in good markets,” Silow said. “Work just flows among the offices.”
Kent said the Atlanta lawyers already have gained client referrals from other Fox offices and referred business to them in areas including corporate, real estate, franchise law, commercial and construction disputes.
“We believe the partners of Fox Rothschild have embraced their new friends—and I’m excited about having 800 new friends as well,” Kent said.
Silow said each of the recent mergers to expand Fox’s national footprint has added new skillsets. With Smith Moore, Fox gains a sports law practice and a renewable energy-infrastructure practice based in North Carolina, as well as a trucking defense and logistics practice based in Greenville, South Carolina, that is supported by the Atlanta office.
Silow described Fox’s culture as democratic, transparent and not very hierarchical, adding that people in management have fairly broad roles. “We do not stand on ceremony.”
Firm leaders are democratically elected by the equity partners or appointed by the elected members of the executive committee—and all positions are term-limited, Silow said.
“We believe in constantly reconstituted management groups,” he said, adding that about 20 percent of the executive committee turns over every year so nobody “becomes entrenched” and people with fresh ideas gain a voice.
The firm’s executive committee is made up of six elected members plus the managing partners of most of the offices. Three Smith Moore leaders joined the executive committee: former firm managing partner Julie Earp in Greensboro, North Carolina, who is now Fox’s local managing partner for Greensboro, Charlotte and Atlanta; Raleigh office managing partner Matthew Leerberg; and Greenville office managing partner Frank Williams.
Kent, formerly Smith Moore’s Atlanta managing partner, represents the Atlanta office on Fox’s litigation practice committee and remains the de facto point person for that office.