Prioritizing increases ease of mergers

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If you’re looking to expand your law firm’s geographic reach or portfolio of services, you might be thinking about the benefits of a merger – and the many steps involved in making that happen.

New letterhead, new website, new people – those are just a few considerations when attempting to grow your practice through merger. While firms may have different ideas about how to prioritize the many components of a merger, most managing attorneys or CEOs will tell you that your clients should always be at the top of the list.

Controlling the message

It’s no secret that firms are reluctant to talk about pending mergers. But inevitably, someone is going to get wind of the news and tell the press or tweet about it to a worldwide audience. If you lose control of how news of your merger is released, your clients may wonder if your firm is the proverbial sinking ship.

melanie green Green

Melanie Green, chief client development officer for the newly merged firm Faegre Baker Daniels, said that only a small group of upper-level management was involved in initial merger talks between Baker & Daniels and Minneapolis-based Faegre & Benson. Once the firms agreed to the merger and informed employees of that decision, they worked quickly to manage the news.

“We knew that with two firms making those announcements internally, that would quickly spread to other audiences,” Green said.

The firms acknowledged publicly that they were discussing a merger but released few other details. And management asked lawyers at both firms to call clients and let them know what was happening.

“So we took a pretty one-to-one approach,” Green said.

Phil Bayt, chief managing partner for Ice Miller, said that before the firm announced its merger with Columbus, Ohio-based Schottenstein Zox & Dunn, it had a thorough plan for disseminating the news.

“Well in advance of announcing the combination we developed a comprehensive internal and external communications strategy that included all our key stakeholders,” Bayt said. “Obviously, communicating the great news to clients was a top priority, and we did so through personal meetings, phone calls and email communication.” 

In November 2011, Jay McAveeney joined Bingham McHale as chief operating officer. In that role, he helped prepare the firm for its merger with Greenebaum Doll & McDonald, headquartered in Louisville, Ky.

McAveeney had been involved in mergers before, but he said the partnership that formed Bingham Greenebaum Doll was the first “merger of equals” he’d helped oversee.

“The ideal scenario is you try to hold off on an announcement until after the merger is approved by the respective firms, and I say that only because the success rate or the rate that mergers are actually consummated is not that high,” McAveeney said. “The hard part though is keeping it hush-hush. At some point, if it does get out and it hits the press somehow, you have to be ready to deal with that.”

Finding the right match

If your law firm lives for casual Friday, you probably don’t want to merge with a firm that strongly believes lawyers should always wear suits. In love, opposites may attract, but the same is not true for law firms.

froehle-tom-mug4c.jpg Froehle

Tom Froehle, chief executive officer for Faegre Baker Daniels, said that Baker & Daniels spent a lot of time thinking about what it wanted in a merger. Faegre & Benson seemed to be a good match – its practice areas like life sciences and corporate transactions were both areas that Baker & Daniels identified as desirable in its own growth, and both firms placed equal emphasis on diversity. But Froehle said that even when firms seem to have similar cultures, the true test of compatibility is how people get along face-to-face.

Baker & Daniels budgeted for travel so management could meet in person with decision-makers at Faegre & Benson and decide whether they all seemed to agree on general management strategies.

“That really is important – that personal interaction and spending a couple of days with people who you are likely to be working with,” Froehle said.

Patience is also a factor in finding a good match. When Sommer Barnard announced in 2008 that it would merge with Cincinnati-based Taft Stettinius & Hollister, the firms had been discussing plans for two years, said Bob Hicks, partner-in-charge of the firm’s Indianapolis office. More recently, Taft Stettinius & Hollister announced a merger with Chester Willcox & Saxbe, based in Columbus, Ohio, a plan that had been in the works for several years, Hicks said.

bob hicks Hicks

“So the old adage, ‘good things are worth waiting for’ is very much true when dealing with something so critical as a major law firm merger,” he added.

Prioritizing needs

You can probably wait until later to figure out how you’ll manage to provide enough coffee for a staff that just doubled in size, but some issues require more immediate attention.

Green said that Faegre Baker Daniels had new business cards and letterhead ready to go on Jan. 1, the day the merger became effective. The new website was launched immediately, too, as it had been in development for three months.

“We definitely had the benefit of some time to get those things done … but that’s not a general way of how all combinations come together,” Green said. Some firms may not have enough lead time to get a new website ready to launch by the merger’s effective date, she added, but they can find temporary solutions. That’s what Bingham Greenebaum Doll did.

McAveeney said that new email addresses were ready for use at the beginning of the year, but the website will continue to be revamped.

“The website – the way we’ve done it is we now have both our legacy URLs pointing to a merged firm website. It’s really just a landing page, but from there, you can click through to the legacy web site,” he said.

Pleasing people

Combining two firms with multiple offices while minimizing employee stress takes some finesse. And being forthright with attorneys and staff may help ease concerns.

“You communicate honestly, regularly and openly,” Hicks said. “Employees fear the unknown. It is the job of firm leadership to eliminate as much of the unknown as possible.”

McAveeney said with any merger, the key to employee satisfaction is making sure any new or changed responsibilities suit each person.

“That’s a delicate dance, if you will. It starts with not necessarily new employees, but in getting the right people in the right roles,” he said.

Despite management’s best efforts, some people may choose to leave a firm after a merger, especially if they fear their jobs may be eliminated.

“Part of the decision making that needs to be done is when you’re integrating, you have redundancies, and do you eliminate the people in those positions? But that’s usually a little bit down the road before you have start making those kinds of decisions,” he said.

Whether a merger is successful depends largely on how firms define success. Profit is just one marker of success, as far as McAveeneymerger is concerned.

“It all centers around servicing existing clients with a broader platform, so my idea of success is when a legacy Greenebaum Doll & McDonald client is now worked on by a legacy Bingham McHale attorney in Indianapolis that Greenebaum wouldn’t have had access to in the past,” he said.

Green said that internal harmony and ensuring that clients feel their needs are being met are two critical elements of any merger.

“Because law is a people business,” she said.•


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  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues