The merger of two history—rich law firms in Cincinnati and Columbus earlier this year was more than 20 years in the making.

But, attorneys with Cincinnati-based Taft Stettinius & Hollister and Chester Willcox & Saxbe in Columbus couldn't be happier.

"It's done all we would hope it would do, and the Chester Willcox lawyers feel the same way," says Thomas Terp, chairman and managing partner of Taft, Cincinnati's fourth-largest law firm with 110 attorneys.

The merger, Taft's fourth since 2001 but first since 2008, tripled the size of its small Columbus office from 15 to 45 lawyers, deepened its bench in key areas and gave it new expertise in energy law and Ohio election law.

It comes against a backdrop of increased law firm mergers nationally over the last couple of years. There were 14 major law firm mergers or acquisitions in the U.S. in the first three months of this year, putting it at about the same pace as before the economic recession, according to the firm Altman Weil Inc., which tracks law firm mergers.

Deep Roots

The Taft firm traces its roots to 1885. Its partners have included former U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft and former Cincinnati Mayor Charles Taft II, both sons of former President William Howard Taft.

The Chester firm is Taft's equal in history and Republican pedigree. The firm was founded in 1884 and includes among its former partners the late Jack Chester, special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon; and the late William Saxbe, former U.S. Senator and Attorney General.

The Taft firm first approached the Chester firm about merger in the late 1980s.

"They weren't ready at that time. They maintained their independence fiercely," says Terp. "But we stayed in touch."

The growth of key clients and the need for the expertise only a larger firm can offer prompted Chester Willcox to seek a merger last year, he says.

The firm's client list includes American Municipal Power Inc., IGS Energy and Ohio State University.

330 Lawyers, Seven Offices

Clients of the Taft firm, which now has 330 lawyers and offices in Cleveland, Covington, Dayton, Indianapolis and Phoenix as well as Cincinnati and Columbus, include the Cincinnati Bengals, US Bank and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Terp, who spends about 20 percent of his time evaluating potential law firm mergers and lateral partner additions, says the firm is not interested in growth for growth's sake.

"It isn't difficult to get big," he says. "It's difficult to do it right."

He says Taft's mission is to be the pre-eminent law firm in the Midwest. In looking at potential mergers, he says, he is most interested in moves that build to that goal.

"It doesn't make sense to do one of these if two plus two equals four. We want to do it only if two plus two equals five," he says.

For example, he says, shortly after the Chester Willcox merger, a partner in Taft's Dayton office received a call from a friend at a Texas law firm looking to make a substantial investment in Northeast Ohio.

"Prior to the Chester Willcox merger, we wouldn't have been able to provide all of what they needed," he says. And Chester Willcox, alone, wasn't on the Texas firm's radar. As a result of the merger, Terp says, Taft has secured significant work from the Texas firm.

Terp says Taft will continue to evaluate acquisitions and new markets deliberately.

"Our objective is to continue to grow without diluting our quality or profitability or culture," he says. 

"It doesn't make sense to do one of these (mergers) if two plus two equals four. We want to do it only if two plus two equals five."