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In recent years law firm acquisitions and dissolutions have changed the landscape of the U.S. legal marketplace. Today’s boutique is a part of tomorrow’s mega-firm; competitors are allies; regional firms have gone global. The feverish market has left some law firms scrambling to keep up with rivals, while merged firms struggle to combine cultures or hold fast to a culture that often feels diluted, not enriched. Most vulnerable is the client relationship, as in-house counsel sit dazed and confused, updating their electronic Rolodexes on a daily basis. Lateral movement, firm mergers, and dissolutions continue at a dizzying pace. The days of joining a firm, making partner, and retiring at that firm are over. On an organizational level, the full-service midsize firm is struggling just to keep up, with many smaller firms that can’t go it alone absorbed by mega-firms. According to Hildebrandt International’s MergerWatch, during the first half of 2005 the number of completed mergers was 34, up from 30 in 2004 and 25 in 2003. Five more mergers have already been announced. This year’s notable mergers include DLA’s combination with Piper Rudnick and Gray Cary (establishing a firm of nearly 3,000 lawyers) and the merger of Pillsbury Winthrop with Shaw Pittman (creating a firm of approximately 900). In addition to the big getting bigger, another byproduct of the merger/movement mania is the proliferation of the global firm with offices spanning continents and time zones, and capabilities across a range of practice areas. Many international firms are hiring aggressively, finding significant fee income from clients they wouldn’t have been able to attract without enhanced global capabilities. But are existing clients equally dazzled? IS IT DESTINY? Maybe it was bound to happen here. If you look at the top 100 firms in the United Kingdom as an example, the top firm has more than 3,200 lawyers, while No. 99 has 69. The span in revenue is equally wide, with the largest firm having more than £914 million in revenue, while the 99th firm has slightly more than £16 million. In the United States, by comparison, the 100th firm still has more than 410 lawyers and more than $161 million in revenue. Clearly, our market is so fragmented that the competitive stakes are tremendous. One institutional client loss or the departure of one rainmaker can send a firm reeling into dissolution. Further exacerbating the competitive tension in a movement-wild environment is the fact that law firms have been so comparatively slow to focus on brand marketing that differentiating factors among firms are relatively nonexistent. Apart from knowing partner X from law school, a client would be hard-pressed to articulate differences between the service received from firm A or firm B. To a marketing professional this means danger ahead. CULTURAL IMPLICATIONS Whether or not a law firm has a brand, every firm has a culture. The challenges to a successful law firm merger are to maintain the best of both worlds, cut dead weight, and somehow create a unified, stable culture. Problems arise when business considerations outshine cultural issues, when firms focus exclusively on numbers on paper and neglect the “soft stuff” that makes a firm a firm, a partner a partner, and a client a client. In one of the most notable merger crises in New York, what most rubberneckers characterized as a compensation problem (the acquiring firm had a lockstep compensation system) was more appropriately viewed as a cultural problem. The underlying partner compensation issues — how to assess value and how to motivate people — can doom partner and firm integration. Surely the problem is not a question of formula; some of the finest New York firms still preserve the lockstep system with unmitigated success. The problem is one of clarity. You’ve got to communicate a firm’s unique way of doing things, its implicit and explicit judgments about value and service, and its culture to remind the lawyers and the clients where they are and why. THE BRAND GUARDIAN Unfortunately, many firms don’t know and don’t care what they are about. Lawyers will spend days at partner retreats and leadership summits with highly paid consultants, helping to draft mission statements about the “full-service law firm combining the talents of more than x lawyers committed to delivering the highest quality of legal services.” Apart from brochures and dinner-party introductions, these statements (which hardly vary from firm to firm) are essentially meaningless. The questions worth asking, with answers worth hearing, are a bit trickier: Who are you, and who are we? What are we about, really? How are we different, and how can we share that with clients? To the merging firm or lateral hire: What will make us better together than apart? This channeling of something intangible into something salable, identifying the “certain something” that sets a firm apart, is the development of brand equity, and it is absolutely critical to long-term success, not the least of which may include mergers, acquisitions, or partner integration. The marketing team plays a critical role in this process, clarifying strategic focus, fostering and maintaining internal communication, making the acquiring firm/team feel valued and appreciated, unifying the message to clients, and championing the firm’s existing brand. IMPLICATIONS FOR THE CLIENT When mergers and lateral moves are contemplated, most law firm partners focus on one specific part of the client relationship: its portability. This approach is perilously inward-looking, addressing what is profitable for the partner, not what is best for the client. In-house counsel have no shortage of lawyers from which to choose. They will quickly note the difference between outside counsel who focus on themselves and outside counsel with a client-centered focus. In a time of movement, relationship partners need to have very frank conversations with clients, laying out a transition plan. What will be different? What will remain the same? Partners should introduce the client to the new firm managing partner and identify the advantages of the client’s new home. Be sure to ask and listen to the client’s concerns about the move. If a team on either end is involved in performing client work, set up a social event to fortify the client-firm relationship with everyone (paralegals and secretaries included) who plays a front-line role in the daily fulfillment of client work. For a client justifiably worried about stability, allay this concern by sharing with the client how the strategic plan better accommodates his very specific needs. Firms with a tight strategy and recognizable culture are growing at breakneck speed, attracting better talent, moving into new markets, and increasing their margins. Lawyers and clients know what it means to join and stay at the firm. Growth happens, and movement and mergers can be spectacular. But beyond hunger for work, in a kinetic environment outside counsel need to stay hungry for excellence in relationships, thinking more about client needs than personal share distribution. That kind of devotion goes hand in hand with the kind of loyalty required for a firm, or a partner, on the move.
Joy Newton Martini is the U.S. chief marketing officer of Lovells and a member of the board of the Metropolitan New York Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. This article originally appeared in New York Law Journal Online , an ALM publication.

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