British firm hopes to tap Fulbright & Jaworski’s ties to energy

The announced merger of Houston’s Fulbright & Jaworski with British law firm Norton Rose illustrates the importance of the energy business to big legal practices looking to get bigger.

It could herald future legal pairings as national and international firms look to Houston to gain a foothold in energy.

Fulbright, founded in Houston in 1919, announced Wednesday that it is combining with London-based Norton Rose to create one of the world’s largest law firms with 3,800 lawyers. When the deal is completed in June, the new Norton Rose Fulbright will have 55 offices, including 11 in the U.S., and is expected to generate $2 billion in revenue.

The deal gives Fulbright a much larger geographic footprint, with offices and access to business in Singapore, Moscow and other major oil- and gas-producing regions. Norton Rose, for example, has the second-largest legal presence in Venezuela.

The British firm also gains geographic coverage plus something perhaps more important: Expertise in energy law from “literally hundreds” of Fulbright lawyers already working in the field, said Norman Steinberg, global chairman of Norton Rose.

“In this area, you can never have enough expertise,” Steinberg said.

In addition to traditional oil and gas, he said the new company has an established and growing track record in renewable energy. Steinberg also said Norton Rose is “always looking for opportunities” and he expects to expand deeper into Latin America, Africa and Asia.

“We’re going to continue growing whether here in Texas or around the world,” he said.

Texas remains crucial

Steven Pfeiffer, chairman of Fulbright’s executive committee, said pairing up with Norton Rose will strengthen the local firm’s business in such areas as finance and health care. But he acknowledged that energy was a key consideration.

“Houston is still the global center of the international energy business,” Pfeiffer said.

Even as Fulbright expands overseas through the combination, Texas will remain essential, Pfeiffer said. He noted that Fulbright has doubled the size of its Dallas office over the last six to eight years and is the largest firm in Austin and second-largest in Houston (behind Vinson & Elkins) and San Antonio.

Executives said they don’t expect any local layoffs, and that the 250-lawyer Houston office is likely to grow instead.

“We’ll never ignore our home base,” Pfeiffer said. “We’re totally committed to Texas.”

Long Houston history

After its founding, the firm grew to prominence far beyond the courthouse – and far beyond the city limits, establishing outposts in Washington in 1927 and Mexico City in 1953.

The firm’s official history notes that two of its partners helped establish in 1936 the endowment that led to the Texas Medical Center and that its attorneys still hold seats on the M.D. Anderson Foundation board of trustees.

The firm became known as Fulbright & Jaworski in 1974, when longtime lawyer Leon Jaworski returned from his stint as prosecutor in the Watergate political scandal. That case made his a household name from coast to coast.

Driven in large measure by growth in the energy industry, Houston today is one of the nation’s strongest legal markets, said recruiter Odette Mace of the search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. Wednesday’s announcement is just the latest proof, she said, and more mergers are likely.

“This is one,” she said. “There are going to be others.”

Reporter Jeannie Kever contributed to this report.

ronnie.crocker@chron.com