A smart merger of two law firms requires careful study about compatibility. Fits between two law firms seldom are perfect. But if the cultures, financial metrics, clients and compensation systems generally are in sync, the opportunity for a successful merger exists. While one of these merger variables actually may be strained, harmony among the others may be sufficient to make the marriage worthwhile.
Even with compatible variables, the operational signatures of the two firms still must be blended. As noted in Resolving Law Firm Transition by Merger—Important Compatibility Issues for Management’s Consideration, the lack of operational compatibility on the effective date of the merger does not necessarily spell doom. Knowing about the existence of the “round pegs,” and the location of the “square holes,” allows the two firms to come together and blend operations into one. Whether the operational differences are in the form of differing fiscal years, technology systems, lawyer support concepts and levels of non-lawyer involvement in everyday life, most can be resolved.
Bottom line, operational challenges are fixable. Indeed, the project to unify operations can be an excellent way to fix “deferred maintenance,” gain collective “buy-in” for the merger or implement “best practices.” Handled correctly, the task of bringing together two operations can create excitement and enthusiasm.
Making the most of any challenge presented by disparate operations is easiest if these steps are followed:
Joint Effort. Start by creating a transition committee that will be responsible for bringing the operations together. Its roster should be pulled from both firms with lawyers (both leaders and non-leadership), administrative staff, and technical staff. After the committee identifies its priorities, it should seek input from the rank and file. An inclusive committee has a broader perspective and heightens the likelihood that good ideas are heard. Moreover, the joint transition committee increases the chance for buy-in since both “firms” are represented in the development of the final plan.
Plan and Timeline. Nothing can be more important to operational unification than developing a plan. But no plan has much chance of success if it is not developed after reviewing and understanding the operational landscape of the two firms. Since a good plan is one that seeks to achieve the merged firm’s objectives and has an end date in mind, the plan should include a timeline with reasonable but challenging milestones.
Communication. When the transition committee is formed, its mandate, the task undertaken and the time for implementation should be disclosed. Upon the plan being finally developed and ready for implementation, it should be explained so attorneys and staff know what to expect and when. The communication should be informative, thorough and if possible, exciting.
Practices, Best Practices and Better Practices. Just because the dominant firm “has always done it this way” does not mean that its practices should be continued. From two ways of doing business a “best practice” might be found or a third, and improved approach, might be discovered. If components of both firms’ operations are uninspiring, consideration should be given to finding and adopting an innovative approach not in use at either firm.
Money. Few plans are afforded an unlimited budget. Due to the added cost of making out-of-schedule changes, operational compatibility may have to wait until a time when regularly scheduled systems upgrades were planned. Excessive spending solely to achieve a unified operation is not only unwise but usually unnecessary. If waiting to implement a new system is financially beneficial, deciding in favor of a deferred roll-out can make sense and be effective if everyone is aware of the plan and its timing. In most instances, the explanation is appreciated and accepted.
Post merger, some combinations struggle as efforts are made to bring operations together. No doubt merging the operations of two firms can be a daunting, but it is a challenge that can be met if operational unification is planned and by a cross section of both firms.
What has been your experience and what lessons have you learned?