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american lawyer media news service Mary W. Legg is president and general counsel of Firm Advice Inc., a legal search consulting firm in Washington. To capitalize on an acquisition, firms need a comprehensive plan for integrating laterals. Lateral hires often don’t succeed because they are unfamiliar with the important nuances of a firm’s capabilities and are unaware of how to tap into opportunities. Increasingly, candidates insist on knowing how an interested firm plans to integrate them before they consider transferring. Suppose a firm finally landed the practice group of its dreams: the first food and drug practice group that could cross-market with existing clients to bring in the valuable and growing market of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) work. Key partners in the group had excellent name recognition and portables enough to keep many hungry associates busy. With all of the skills, talents and clients possessed by this group, the acquiring firm was sure it would “hit the ground running” and really add to the firm’s bottom line. But suppose, after two trying years, this group has failed to meet expectations. And one of the key partners defected within a year. Chalk it up to just another bad lateral hire? With the strength of the FDA industry and the anticipated growth in that practice area, should the firm launch a new search for the right group? And where did the firm go wrong in the selection and hiring process-so that it won’t make the same mistake next time around? Should the firm look for certain traits or characteristics in the next group that this group did not possess? Maybe the problem is not in the hiring process, but in the integration process-or lack thereof. When laterals join the law firm, what are the expectations of the parties? Are they clear? Does the law firm have in place any methods and procedures to help laterals accomplish their goals? What firms need is a comprehensive, yet practical, process for melding the strengths of the laterals with those of established firm members. Whether a firm is acquiring one partner, a practice group or an entire firm, it will benefit from establishing a written plan for integrating laterals. Develop an integration plan The plan should be sufficiently general to cover the acquisition of any and all prospective targets, yet specific enough so that details such as identities of groups and individuals can be easily plugged into the plan. As firm members and staff become familiar with the plan, the integration process will not only become easier with each acquisition, but will also enable the firm continually to improve on its plan. To get started on an integration plan, a law firm should focus on the reason why it wants to expand in general, and why it is targeting particular practice groups. Growth for the sake of growth is not very persuasive to many enlightened partners. The plan should outline the areas of practice that will be developed or strengthened, and why these areas are important to the firm. This process will enable the firm to identify its expectations to any target group. Comparing expectations will enable all parties to determine if there is a good fit. A law firm should not wait for the acquisition to become final before beginning the integration process. During the negotiation process, news often leaks into the marketplace, causing a feeding frenzy of headhunters and other firms seeking to capture key partners. Absorbing all of the laterals quickly can prevent groups from splintering off from the core target group to join competitor firms-and from taking valuable clients with them. Form an integration team An integration team is crucial in realizing the synergies between the firm and the acquired group. The team should be established as soon as it is reasonably certain that a partner or group will be acquired. Meetings should be held every week, starting before the laterals arrive. The size of the team should be based on the size of the firm and the planned acquisitions. At least some of the team members should have a thorough knowledge of the overall firm, while others should have an in-depth knowledge of a practice group that is relevant to the acquisition. The team could also include administrative personnel who know the practices and clients of the firm, as well as a member of the acquired group. Weekly team meetings will reveal additional synergies and assist in the integration process, as well as keep the team abreast of developments during the final stages of negotiations. The team may be able to help the firm avoid any potential stumbling blocks to the acquisition or identify legitimate deal-breaking issues. Attorneys should get together with the lateral candidates on a formal and informal basis, in large and small meetings and socials. These meetings should begin during the negotiation phase and become more frequent as the talks progress, going beyond the typical lunches and in-office business meetings. The team should select partners and associates-from the firm and the target group-whose practices may benefit from knowing more about their future colleagues. Even if there is not an obvious link between their practices of some of the participants, they may discover new connections. The team should also assist in arranging small dinner parties to be held at people’s homes, to which significant others are invited. Unless the people involved in these meetings are required to share what they learn, much useful knowledge will be lost. Very soon after each meeting, each attendee should report back to the integration team about relationships they either discovered or developed, so new information is not lost. They may even be able to report a new or revived connection with a current colleague. In the absence of careful tracking, successes in cross-marketing can go unnoticed. Not recognizing that integration efforts are working can stall and even kill an integration plan. The firm needs to communicate successes, both big and small, to the rest of the firm. The method of communication should fit the firm’s size and culture. Sending e-mails may suffice for some firms. One firm went further, posting a chart of successes in its lunchroom and holding a contest with several categories: the most introductions, the most new matters generated, the highest billables from cross-marketing. The “grand prize” winners received an all-inclusive vacation to the destination of their choice. The competition this contest generated was fierce and fun. It is often difficult to convince partners to devote time to projects that are nonbillable. Bonuses, from small to significant, should reward individuals for their contribution to making the acquisition successful. Anyone who takes the time to report useful information to the team and follows through on any suggestions made by the team should be awarded a bonus. Those who were more actively involved in the process should be rewarded accordingly. Obviously, if the acquisition is successful and the synergies that prompted the move are realized, virtually everyone at the firm will benefit. That means that everyone should bear the burden of making it work. The time and expense involved in integrating a new group is minor when compared with the costs of a failed acquisition.

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