In today’s rumor mill, Winston & Strawn and Heller are in merger talks. Substantiating the rumors, according to Legal Pad, is the supposed registration of and

While Heller is not on record of laying off attorneys, they have seen the departure of numerous partners these past few months. In addition, they are on record for staff layoffs last year.

Begs the questions, which comes first? Layoffs (or a reduction in headcount through “performance” reviews) or a Merger?

Having been in-house at three firms during merger negotiations (only one took), and through observations of other mergers through the years, it always seems that attorney headcount goes down during the courting period. Departures can be attributed to: 1) one firm cleaning house so as to make themselves more financially attractive to a merger partner; 2) conflicts, either clients or issues; or 3) productive attorneys leaving on their own accord who don’t want to be part of the merged firm; and, 4) an internal bleed that can only be stemmed by an acquisition.

For anyone looking in from the outside, the attorney departures might have been a tip-off that something was a comin’, no matter what the cause.

So, Coolerites, what are the external signs that point the way to a shotgun marriage between firms? Headcount reductions? AmLaw rankings drop? Departure of senior administrative staff (redundant positions??)? Registration of new domain names?