The overall recovery of global economies and, specifically, growth in Europe, has had a direct impact on the legal markets of the Baltic countries.
Last year was a record year for Baltic firms in terms of number of lawyers employed and revenues generated. I have calculated that during 2014-2016 the combined revenue of the five largest firms grew by approximately 15-20 percent (up from EUR 50-60 million in 2014 to EUR 60-70 million in 2016). The large firms in Lithuania now employ an average of 70-80 lawyers, and the largest firms in Latvia and Estonia employ an average of 40 and 50, respectively.
After several recent turn-arounds, the Baltic markets are now calm. The market as a whole has transformed from simple and fragmented to sophisticated and consolidated; the leading practices have grown from small 10-person local partnerships in 1995 to 180+ lawyer pan-Baltic firms in 2017:
The Baltics can now be compared with neighboring markets. The largest firms in Poland and Finland have around 140 lawyers (except for Dentons in Warsaw, which reports 200 lawyers). Although the markets of Poland and Finland are larger, Baltic firms are of similar size (and sometimes even larger). Why? In my view, there are three key features that make the Baltics different from other markets:
(1) No Direct Competition from International Firms
Except for Eversheds’ franchise, there are no international firms established in the Baltics yet. Looking forward, we expect two or three such firms to land in our markets by 2022. The usual suspects, such as DLA, Dentons, and Baker & McKenzie are said to be considering such opportunities and scouting for partners in the Baltics. Other international organizations cannot be excluded either. With the Baltic markets growing and becoming more mature, we will see new firms entering them by greenfield and through acquisition.
(2) The Market is Consolidated and Dominated by 3-4 Larger Firms
Over the past few years, the regional Baltic market has consolidated significantly. In 2015 Raidla Lejins & Norkus and Lawin rebranded into Cobalt and Ellex, and Borenius’ Baltic offices merged into Cobalt. In 2016, after the split of Tark Grunte Sutkiene in Estonia, Varul joined TGS. In 2017 Glimstedt’s Tallinn office was dissolved and its Latvian office joined Ellex. Ultimately, there are four major pan-Baltic players – Cobalt, Ellex, Sorainen, and TGS Baltic – each with 140+ lawyers and turnover exceeding EUR 10 million.
These four firms dominate league tables and regularly appear on larger Baltic deals. However, new combinations are emerging too. In 2016 the Baltic firm Derling was formed and Primus expanded to Lithuania. These are early stage formations, resulting from spin-offs from other firms (Glimstedt, Tark, and Varul), and they are yet to fully establish their place in the market.
The Big 4 accounting firms are building up their legal presence too. They are hiring senior people or even groups from law firms. In Estonia, part of Glimstedt’s team moved to PwC in 2017. In Lithuania, partners from Ellex and TGS moved to Deloitte and KPMG respectively. Earlier this year, a smaller Lithuanian firm – 3Law – announced a merger with top 5 Lithuanian accounting firm Grant Thornton. Accountants are not yet on the transaction market but have clear ambitions to be there. In the recent acquisition of pan-Baltic tour operator Novaturas the buyer was advised by Deloitte Poland, cutting traditional firms off from the deal.
In my view, it is easier for accountants to penetrate emerging markets such as those in the CEE region, including the Baltics, than more established markets. For example, in Poland Deloitte, which has 90 lawyers, claims to be a Top 5 legal firm. Thus, we will see more competition for talents and business from accountants soon.
(3) The Baltics is a Single Market
The Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian legal markets are highly integrated, and are often considered one single market. Major companies in all key sectors (telecoms, financial services, media, energy, transport, etc.) have operations in all three Baltic countries. Successful local companies look to expand first to other Baltic countries. On average, we receive five to eight new matters involving at least two Baltic countries each week. Therefore, for firms there is a clear business reason to be represented in all three jurisdictions. Firms with no offices in other Baltic countries cannot compete to the same extent. Market singularity calls for consolidation and integration of firms, which makes firms grow stronger.
We are happy to be at this time and in this place.
By Irmantas Norkus, Managing Partner, Cobalt Lithuania
This Article was originally published in Issue 4.8 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.