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In 2014, Tampa-based Carlton Fields merged with Jorden Burt. On Wednesday, James Jorden and Frank Burt left to join Drinker Biddle & Reath, raising questions about whether the merger was worthwhile.

By Dylan Jackson | March 07, 2019 at 04:58 PM

Carlton Fields / Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM

Five years after the merger between Carlton Fields and Jorden Burt took effect, the benefits of the union seem a lot less clear.

On Wednesday, name partners James Jorden and Frank Burt left the firm to join Drinker Biddle & Reath along with 16 other litigators. A week earlier, Carlton Fields dropped Jorden Burt from its name.

Five years ago, one of the stated goals of the merger was growth. Now, it appears that growth was only temporary, as the number of lawyers at Carlton Fields is now back to its pre-merger level.

Carlton Fields had 272 lawyers before the merger five years ago. The merger did boost Carlton Fields’ head count to 339 lawyers. But in 2018, before the most recent departures, the firm reported a lawyer head count of 277, only five more lawyers than before the two firms merged.

Also, of the 48 legacy Jorden Burt partners who moved over to the combined firm at the time of the merger, 30 have left, according to data from ALM Intelligence.

Back in 2015, Carlton Fields President and CEO Gary Sasso lauded the synergy between the two firms, which had similar practice areas, as Carlton Fields pushed for geographic expansion.

“The remarkable thing about this merger, which you almost never see, is that the profits per partner numbers were virtually identical,” Sasso said in an interview with The American Lawyer. “It’s a tremendous benefit because you don’t have one side saying they are stronger than the other side. Partners feel equal, and I think it makes for a stronger merger.”

Carlton Fields posted strong numbers that year. The firm vaulted 20 spots up the Am Law 200 rankings, from No. 156 to No. 136. Gross revenue jumped 23 percent to $233 million. The head count ballooned to 353 from 272. The firm also opened a Los Angeles office in 2014, which Sasso said was a direct result of the merger.

“I don’t think Carlton Fields would have opened the office without Jorden Burt. That was the tipping point,” he said in 2015.

But in the years since, there have been signs that the merger wasn’t going as planned. Profit margins started slipping, then gross revenue. In 2018, the firm posted revenues of $182 million, a 12 percent drop from its 2015 peak.

Before news that Jorden and others had jumped to Drinker, Carlton Fields announced it would be moving all 150 Miami employees from its current 69,000-square-foot space on the 42nd floor of the Miami Tower in downtown Miami to a 50,000-square-foot office across two-and-a-half floors at 2 MiamiCentral at the Virgin Trains USA station nearby.

Carlton Fields declined to comment for this article. But in a statement, it reiterated what it said earlier regarding Jorden’s departure, that it wished the departing group continued success. It also emphasized that its class action and insurance litigation practices remain strong, and that its financial services, regulatory and transactional attorneys have remained with the firm. “We will not miss a beat in terms of our ability to meet the needs of our financial services clients and this industry sector,” it said in the statement.

On Wednesday, Drinker Biddle said it is eyeing an expansion into Miami in order to accommodate Jorden’s group. More Carlton Fields attorneys may join the firm, it said.