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John Coleman, the managing partner of Norton Rose in Canada

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The latest cross-border marriage to shake up Canada's – and the world's – legal industry is now official, as London-based Norton Rose and U.S.-based Fulbright & Jaworski unite to become Norton Rose Fulbright, one of the biggest law firms on the planet.

Norton Rose's Canadian arm, the product of mergers in the last three years with Montreal-based Ogilvy Renault and Calgary-based Macleod Dixon, is now part of a globe-straddling law firm that finally has a major presence in the U.S. market.

The deal to merge with Fulbright, which takes effect June 3, but was first announced last year, was a key component of Norton Rose's rapid global growth-by-merger strategy. It now has 3,800 lawyers in offices in 50 cities worldwide, and is one of the world top 10 biggest law firms. By merging with Fulbright, the firm goes from zero to 750 lawyers in the U.S., a market no law firm with global aspirations can ignore.

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"The legal industry is undergoing a great deal of change around the world," said John Coleman, managing partner for Canada for Norton Rose Fulbright, predicting widespread consolidation of law firms everywhere in the next three years. "The national firms will be the ones under the most pressure. I think a lot of firms are asking themselves some questions."

Legal industry watchers agree that Norton Rose's presence in Canada is changing the competitive landscape among law firms, with other firms expected to follow suit and merge with international heavyweights.

Earlier this year, another well-known Canadian national firm, Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, officially took the plunge, joining with European and U.S. firms to form Dentons, a merger of FMC with U.S.-based SNR Denton and Europe's Salans, has 2,500 lawyers worldwide.

Mr. Coleman says he welcomes the competition from Dentons. He says among the strengths his newly merged firm brings are its focus on energy, on the growing world of regulation and internal investigations – including those involving anti-bribery laws – and the life-sciences and health-care businesses. Fulbright & Jaworski, founded in Houston, has long had a major presence in the U.S. oil business, and a well-established health-care practice.

Mr. Coleman also said that despite gaining a U.S. toehold, the firm has no plans to stop its expansion elsewhere. It is even now eyeing its next target, Brazil's growing market.

So far, outside of Norton Rose Fulbright and Dentons and a few smaller firms, law-firm tie-ups have been slower to catch on in Canada than in Australia, which in recent years has seen a rash of mergers between domestic firms and global giants completely transform that country's legal market.

But it is wrong to think of these mergers as exactly the same as a corporate merger. Not only do they involve partnerships, most of this new class of global law firm are decentralized "Swiss Verein" structures, where marketing, strategy and some other aspects are combined, but the different national firms' profits are kept separate.

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