Transatlantic connection 

Two law firms, either side of ‘the pond’ have officially joined forces following a successful strategic alliance. Womble Bond Dickinson – a combination of Bond Dickinson and Womble Carlyle – is now looking to cement its position as a mid-market international law firm by focusing on key sectors across the UK and US. Alison Cowie speaks to Betty Temple, CEO and chair of Womble Bond Dickinson US, to find out how the relationship has developed and the benefits the new combined firm will bring clients and employees

In June 2017, it was announced that the Newcastle headquartered law firm, Bond Dickinson, was to combine with American law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP.

The combination follows a year’s strategic alliance between the two firms.

Womble Bond Dickinson, which officially launched on November 1, has created a Transatlantic firm with 24 offices in key commercial and financial locations across the US and the UK and a workforce in excess of 1000 lawyers serving more than 250 publically-traded companies.

Betty Temple has become chair and CEO of Womble Bond Dickinson US, while North East-based Jonathan Blair becomes chair and managing partner of Womble Bond Dickinson UK.

Both will be responsible for the operations in their respective regions, while also co-chairing a newly-created global board that will oversee the branding, marketing and strategic planning of the enlarged firm.

While Bond Dickinson has been a stalwart of the North East of England’s legal scene for years, I was keen to gauge the American perspective of this transatlantic union and so met Betty in the firm’s London office, just a few weeks after the official launch of Womble Bond Dickinson.

I first ask Betty about her background and career. She tells me in a warm southern drawl that she attended the University of North Carolina before moving to Atlanta, where she worked as a public securities attorney at a smaller firm called Parker Johnson, which merged with Womble Carlyle in 1995.

Betty continued to help companies with their public company compliance in Atlanta before being appointed managing partner of the firm’s new office in Greenville, South Carolina.

Betty initially divided her time between Atlanta and Greenville before being asked if she would make a permanent move to Greenville. Her tongue-in-cheek- reply was, “only if I can live in the country and have a horse farm”.

But that night she logged onto www.realtor.com and the first house that came up was a farm in Travelers Rest in South Carolina, around 20 minutes from Greenville.

Betty subsequently bought the 1904 historic farmhouse and spent a year restoring it while adding accommodation for up to 20 horses.

Now permanently based at the Greenville office, Betty led a strategic planning initiative at the firm and spent time on the Womble Carlyle board, in between having her three children.

In January 2016, Betty was elected as the firm’s first, and youngest, chair and CEO outside of Winston-Salam (the historic base of Womble Carlyle).

Weeks before starting her new role, she attended a British American Business Council Christmas party in Charlotte where, by chance, she met some of the Bond Dickinson senior team.

She explains: “One of our partners had worked with Bond Dickinson on a number of corporate deals and they were all having a drink after the event had finished. I joined them and we immediately got on. We suggested doing something more formal between the two firms, so in January – days after starting my CEO role – I was on a plane to London.”

The meeting proved a success and for the next six months, both firms worked on a strategic alliance agreement.

“We wanted to see if we could work together and build real international capability within our firms with a middle market focus,” explains Betty.

The strategic alliance came into force on June 15, 2016. Days later, the UK voted to leave the EU.

Betty admits that the Brexit result was not expected by either firm but, despite the uncertainty it created, the strategic alliance continued and proved fruitful for both sides.

At the end of 2016, talk turned to whether the relationship could be moved to another level.

“Both our firms were being approached by other opportunities but we decided that we needed to explore the strategic opportunity that was right in front of us,” says Betty.

After taking the idea of merging the two firms to the management committee and then to a partner vote, both firms were in the position to announce the creation of Womble Bond Dickinson in summer 2017.

Betty tells me the combination has created a firm with a “better world understanding and a bigger view” while allowing a “freedom to align goals, share best practice and innovate.”

The new firm will also adopt a more sector-focused strategy (something that is more common in UK law firms than it is in the US) and will look to combine expertise on both sides of the Atlantic to attract more clients in industries, such as energy and natural resources, life sciences, healthcare, technology and manufacturing.

But, as Betty maintains, Womble Bond Dickinson’s new international strengths will not be to the detriment of its smaller clients.

“Our tagline is ‘we’re the transatlantic law firm, close to home’, and we remain absolutely committed to our local community and all our clients – whether they are entirely local or entirely internationally-focused,” she says.

The combination of the two firms, it is hoped, will also help to retain and attract the best talent.

“It will give our employees the opportunity to work on important matters close to home or abroad – which is an important differentiator for us,” Betty explains.

The CEO goes on to reveal that ‘priority one’ for 2018 is the integration of the new firm, and while shared culture and common language will surely help this process, there’s still an ocean lying between the two sides of the combination.

The distance is certainly a challenge, but we recognise that the best cross-sell and synergies come from building internal relationships, where everyone understands how each other operate. By achieving this, we will be able to provide a more authentic service to our clients.

Betty continues: “One of my focuses in 2018 will be thinking of ways to make the distance across the pond a lot shorter. It will require a lot of time and effort, but it’s an essential component for the future success of the firm.”

As everyone at Womble Bond Dickinson settles into their new transatlantic roles, Betty reveals that the firm will also concentrate on achieving client-led growth in 2018, with a particular focus in intellectual property, energy and life sciences.

She concludes: “We’re going to remain opportunistic and driven by what we believe will help our clients and build on the strengths created with our new combined firm.”

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