July 15, 2021
Law Firm M&A: Helping Clients Understand the Value of Your Imminent Merger
After a sharp, pandemic-induced slowdown, law firm M&A activity is heating up fast. Completed mergers tallied by Fairfax Associates in the first half of 2021 were on par with 2020, but several transformative deals announced in the second quarter – Crowell & Moring and Brinks Gilson, Holland & Knight and Thompson & Knight, to name a few — promise to reshape certain markets and are a harbinger of more activity to come. Altman Weil predicts we may see more than 100 new mergers or acquisitions by the end of 2021.
If you’re one of those 100 — or if you’re planning on a deal in 2022 — your merger has the potential to dramatically transform your firm’s culture and scope. Even smaller, tuck-in acquisitions can significantly impact how you serve clients and develop business. Meanwhile, the ongoing global health crisis and America’s racial reckoning, the greatest drivers of change in our age, continue to present challenges, particularly regarding how your clients expect their outside counsel to operate and how your employees think about their workplace. You need a thoughtful, proactive communication plan to demonstrate how the combined firm will meet the needs of these stakeholders in a rapidly evolving environment.
Instead of trying to convince everyone that the combining firms are perfect cultural fits – which by now has become a default headline message for every merger announcement — the most important thing you can do at the outset of a deal is instill confidence that the combination will deliver in important ways for your key stakeholders: clients and employees, first and foremost. Luckily, we all learned a few things about communicating with clients and colleagues during the pandemic.
Here’s what you should keep top-of-mind as you get started:
1 – Don’t Abandon Zoom Yet
We heard it several times during a June 8 panel we moderated with current and former Fortune 500 GCs: We’re not going back to the way it was before. Remote communication is here to stay so make it work for you. Plan to get your clients on video immediately after your announcement, introduce them to your new colleagues – associates and counsels as well as partners – and if you can, showcase the broader diversity on the team. Offer remote training with new partners that strengthen important areas your clients care about. Traveling from client to client to tout the benefits of your combination is time consuming and expensive – and it is no longer necessary.
Remote communication can help in other ways, too. R. Cameron Garrison, CEO of Lathrop GPM, which was formed days before the pandemic took hold in the US, said that doing business remotely and the need to communicate digitally put everyone on equal footing. “All of a sudden we weren’t thinking of two organizations trying to come together,” Garrison said about the mindset of the firm’s lawyers when the pandemic hit. “All of a sudden the entire framework shifted to ‘we.’ How are ‘we’ going to navigate this?”
2 – Demonstrate Depth and Progress
Clients want progress on DE&I. And we know that they want more targeted, next level analysis in your more routine communications (alerts, newsletters, webinars, etc.). Deliver the same degree of detail to demonstrate how your combination helps you make progress in the areas clients really care about. Start by answering these questions:
- What is your overall vision and strategic plan for the new firm and how will it enhance client service? In other words, how does one + one = three, five or even more?
- How does the newly combined firm stack up on DE&I metrics, and what action will the combined firm take to make tangible progress towards DE&I goals?
- Will the combination allow your employees to flourish and grow in new ways? How will it enable you to attract new talent and retain the partners and associates you have?
- What are some of the unique ways the combined firm will better serve large, institutional clients or an emerging sector?
- What areas of strength or niche capabilities will each party offer the other’s clients?
- Being transparent with clients and employees alike about your business case will help build excitement and goodwill —invaluable assets during integration.
3 – Get Creative About Culture
In normal times, post-merger integration involved a lot of travel. Leaders from each firm visited office locations to meet as many partners and associates as possible. Meetings, town halls, and cocktail hours provided opportunities for face-to-face networking. These in-person interactions helped create trust and rapport.
The pandemic put those tactics on hold. But one firm got creative and rented an RV to send its leadership team on the road. The team visited each office location and invited employees to connect in safe, socially distanced ways, providing a memorable and shared experience.
Also effective (if less dramatic), a Fortune 20 GC participant in the recent panel spoke about his legal department’s “camera-on” culture and how it provides the perfect opportunity to get to know associates, diverse lawyers and others working on their business.
As you prepare to ink a deal in the second half of 2021 or early 2022, look for out-of-the-box approaches like this to foster relationships between new colleagues and with clients, and forge a culture about which everyone can get excited.
Professional services firms don’t get too many newsworthy, all-eyes-on-you moments. A merger or acquisition is one of the few pivotal events that guarantees all your key stakeholders will be paying attention.
Lean into the communication tactics you developed during the pandemic. Amid ever-shifting circumstances, you learned that it’s impossible to over-communicate. Frequent, smart, transparent communication is key in a crisis — it’s also the cornerstone of effective change management.
And don’t forget that this is your chance to build an exciting new culture around your M&A business case. Through effective external and internal communication, you can inspire your stakeholders and signal that your new direction is strategic, visionary, and purposeful.