Of course, an upturn in deal-making benefits one group the most: M&A advisory firms. The three publicly-traded firms that investors can play the M&A trend with include Lazard ( LAZ)., Evercore Partners ( EVR) and Greenhill Partners ( GHL).

Analysts expect these firms to boost revenue at a 10% to 20% clip this year, though those forecasts that M&A activity remains fairly quiet. If history is any guide, these firms can see their shares move up quickly once the M&A activity kicks into gear.

Watching for "Merger Monday"

Companies like to announce deals on Monday mornings. That gives both parties the entire weekend to cross the t's and dot the i's without risk that word will leak out. So it pays to watch the action on Mondays. Once a specific deal is announced, other firms in the same field quickly realize that they need to keep up, and they start to formulate their own deal-making plans. Case in point: In the summer of 2010, Dell ( DELL) and Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) engaged in a bidding war for data storage firm 3Par (HP ultimately prevailed). Within months, 3Par's rivals, Compellent and Isilon, were also snatched up, delivering robust profits to shareholders that had the foresight to ride the M&A wave.

In the second part of this look at M&A trends, we'll more closely identify companies that may get acquired -- at a solid premium -- in coming quarters.
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