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Last year, law firms chose to buckle down and manage their expenses instead of expanding their businesses with mergers and acquisitions, according to recently released data.

In 2009 there were 53 new law firm mergers and acquisitions in the U.S. That was down 24 percent over 2008’s total, according to a report from legal research firm Altman Weil MergerLine.

About 79 percent of 2009’s deals involved the acquisition of small law firms with 20 or fewer lawyers, per the report.

“This reflects law firms’ cautious approach last year, as most firms spent 2009 focused on internal issues of cost cutting, layoffs, and compensation adjustments in response to the Great Recession,” said Altman Weil principal Ward Bower, in a statement. “But we expect to see an uptick in 2010 as deals currently on hold pending 2009 year-end results are finalized.”

One of the big exceptions to that, which was cited in the report, involved Boston-based Bingham McCutchen, which acquired McKee Nelson, a 120-attorney firm, in August. Another big deal saw K&L Gates, which has a large presence in Boston, acquire Bell Boyd and Lloyd in January.

The biggest deal, per the report, was the merger of the U.K.’s Lovells LLP with Washington, D.C.-based Hogan & Hartson. When that deal is ultimately finalized in May of 2010, it will be the second largest law firm merger ever accomplished, forming a 2,500-lawyer firm, according to Altman Weil.

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