Law: Something even bigger in the City: Frere Cholmeley and Bischoff are joining forces in May

THE CITY firm Frere Cholmeley caused something of a stir last week when it announced its merger with the 22-partner practice Bischoff & Co, not least because it is the first such move involving major players for more than two years.

The merged firm, to be called Frere Cholmeley Bischoff, will be based at Frere Cholmeley's new premises in John Carpenter Street, London. Richard Millar, the senior partner at Bischoff, explains the strategy behind the merger.

'It was not defensive so much as a positive step to enlarge our practice and offer our clients - primarily City institutions - the services offered by the big City firms,' he says.

'About a year ago, our partners decided that a merger with an appropriate firm would give us greater depth, particularly on the corporate and litigation sides.' The two practices are largely complementary, with little overlap between clients, Mr Millar says. 'A feature to which we attach great importance is that the culture should be right. We were attracted to Frere Cholmeley for that reason, as well as for its European connections.'

The move will take place at the beginning of May. The jobs of the combined strength of 63 partners and 213 fee-earners will not be at risk, although administrative staff face some cuts to dispense with duplication of systems.

Frank Presland, of Frere Cholmeley, will be the chairman of the combined firm, and Mr Millar will be joint chairman; Tim Razzall will be the chief executive, as he is currently of Frere Cholmeley.

Frere Cholmeley went into the partnership from a different point of view, Mr Razzall says. 'We had no merger strategy, but we became interested when we heard on the legal grapevine that Bischoff might be looking for a partner.'

If the company had been planning to merge, Bischoff would have been the number-one choice in any event, he says. 'First, because it is a unique practice in terms of the quality of its clientele in relation to its size, and, second, because of its specialisms.'

As Mr Razzall says, a large proportion of Bischoff's work is in areas in which Frere Cholmeley is weak. Bischoff's corporate practice has a strong City institutional base, and the firm is a market leader in unit trust and fund management. Frere Cholmeley's work is more with multinationals.

In the commercial property field, Bischoff's clients are largely investors, while Frere Cholmeley's are mainly users. The diversity of the two firms' work means there is virtually no conflict of interest on the client lists.

The offer of merger was, says Mr Razzall, too good an opportunity to miss. He agrees with Mr Millar that the compatibility in culture of the two firms was a crucial element in the decision to merge.

'Once we had a business deal to put to our partners, the first question to be asked was whether they would be comfortable with the people in the other firm. If the answer had been no, however good the business deal, they would not have wanted to do it.

'The most important thing about a people business such as ours is the people in it. I suspect that mergers that have gone wrong have foundered on that. We might all be lawyers, but our firms all have different cultures.'

Mr Razzall has no doubts about the decision to merge. 'I am very confident it will work,' he says. It helps, he adds, that Frere Cholmeley has recently consolidated its practice into one base, moving from three office sites to its new building only last September. Staff of both firms will thus be relative newcomers together.

Few of the City's major firms have been involved in the merger mania that began in the late Eighties. In 1988, 200 staff from Oppenheimers joined Denton Hall Burgin & Warren. Taylor Joynson Garrett, Lovell White Durrant and Penningtons have all substantially increased in size following amalgamations. But the most significant merger was in 1987 when Coward Chance and Clifford-Turner joined up to become Clifford Chance, the country's largest firm.

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