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How to Survive a Merger Without Losing Your Mind

published April 02, 2007

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( 44 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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<<Staying on Point

I am sorely tempted, believe me, to go off on a tangent about why mergers are so prevalent and why they are inevitable and why they are actually good for firms, good for the practice, and good for the industry. But I promised myself that I would stay on point. Therefore, I'll limit my comments to those applicable to what you should be doing about this phenomenon.

And, if I may add, do not be smug. I do not care how big or small your firm is; there is an approximately 0.00003% chance that your firm does not fall somewhere along the merger-talk spectrum.

Get a Clue.

First of all, if you are thinking about your career properly, you should already know about most merger rumors long before they are announced. This is because you should be engaged in all sorts of relationships across the whole spectrum of your firm. You should be on friendly and conspiratorial terms with the copy guy, the fax person, and the mail-sorting staff. You should have warm relations with at least a half-dozen partners and frequently be seen loitering in the offices of your associate friends.

Getting along in a law firm is part of your job! You cannot serve your clients if you do not know what resources you can bring to bear—and your resources are your colleagues in your firm. If you are one of those "I'm-so-smart-I'm-relying-solely-on-
my-legal-expertise" types, your longevity at any firm will be measured in years rather than decades.

The point is, if you are staying active and involved in your firm, you are going to know—if not the precise name of a potential partner—the type, scope, platform, and "fitness" of the other firm in relation to yours. In a firm of significant size, there are usually anywhere between two and five fairly serious merger discussions happening at any given time. If you aren't in the know about at least one of these, you aren't "doing it right."

Be Prepared.

"Forewarned is forearmed," as they say, but what does that mean in this context? In essence, it is the advice discussed above applied to your smaller circle—your practice group, team, etc. You should know whether your group is doing well in terms of retention, billables, collectibles, political strength in the firm, representation on leadership/management committees, and relative age and productivity of its partners.

If you know you are in a group that has been shrinking for the past three years, has lower billable rates than the targets set by the firm (if you don't know what these are, you should be asking around informally), and is doing work that is definitely not perceived as "sexy" in the firm psyche, then you need to be thinking seriously about switching groups (or firms). At the very least, you should know when to be scared about merger talks and when to be sanguine.

Why? Duh! Because merger talks mean that long, strong, hard looks will be taken at the bottom line. When a firm is sailing along and overall buoyancy is good, management doesn't perceive that it has the time to worry about slightly underperforming segments; it is easier to allow these little aberrations to continue.

However, when merger talks begin in earnest (and move on from the friendly discussion stage), management gets out its collective slide rule and thinks about where the fat is. If your hours are low (I don't care what the reason for this is) or if your group is weak, you should begin to feel the tremors under your feet.

What to Do When It Hits

Okay. Let's jump ahead to the reality of the new merger. Let's assume you have lived through the initial announcement and the firm is definitely merging (as opposed to just having the rumor splashed across the front pages of the legal media). The associate and partner meetings have been held, the new flyers are out, and everyone is talking about "synergy" and "cooperation."

Now is the time to get in gear. You need to be even chattier than usual. Do some research on the merger-partner firm's website. Figure out who your group counterparts are. Call them. Email them. Get to know these people. The real work of the firm is no longer billing (do that in your spare time!) but integrating. You absolutely must be perceived as someone who is out there trying to make things happen.

I do not care if you are a first-year lawyer or a 35-year partner—you must now tweak your professional plan to include meeting "x" new attorneys from the merger partner per week. Volunteer to participate on a committee; volunteer to spend a week in the other firm's home office in "y" city. I can tell you that there are numerous partners and associates who have kick-started their careers by simply being available and willing to perform administrative tasks (e.g., getting on important committees).

I firmly believe in a few die-hard adages: keep your enemies close; it is difficult to be hit by an artillery piece if you are standing right next to it; and it is better to be the artilleryman than an infantryman. Those who get involved in official or informal groups whose aim is to integrate the firm are far less likely to be perceived as expendable when the new financial statements come out.

Keep It Cool.

There is no way you are going to know how a merger is going to shake out for at least two years. That's how long it takes for even the most aggressive merger partners to fully integrate (if they ever do). The point is that you must certainly get involved, but take the long view.

What is important today may be passé very shortly. This makes it all the more important that you establish as many relationships as possible both within the old-timer crowd (your old-firm colleagues) and among the new guys. Be seen as someone embracing the change. This cannot backfire. Even if the merger goes south or an important group (of which you are a member!) starts thinking about a split, you will be seen as someone who is strong enough and savvy enough to weather storms.

I can tell you that it is no more difficult for the courageous to do brave things than for the timid to quake in their offices. You must embrace the change and be ready to be changed in the process. If you want to maintain your equilibrium and avoid losing your head, taking positive action will give you the sense of power and control you need to weather the crisis—whether good or bad—with which a merger presents you.

If you would like more advice about advancing and succeeding in the law firm world, contact Pete Smith at 415-568-2201 or surf over to for further information.

published April 02, 2007

( 44 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.