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You used to know your colleagues and your firm so well, it was like breathing. But now your firm has merged, and all that you once knew is up for grabs. Much of what you assumed about your firm is changing before your eyes. Sure, the work continues. Everyone is attending to the clients, and the management committee is scrambling to get all of the systems in place to make the merged firm run efficiently. But concerns are cropping up everywhere. Equity partners are afraid their post-merger compensation will shrink. Nonequity partners envision their salaries stagnating. Senior associates resent new peers they’ll be competing against for partnership. With today’s spate of merger activity, firms across the country are struggling to blend people and practices. Even when a merger is best for all in the long term, it can create short-term stresses and worries. In its early stages, the “people factor” is typically placed on the back burner while management concentrates on getting the merged firm functioning. But no one benefits if a merger results in anxious lawyers and departures of splinter groups. Without proactive management of the people in the firm, chances of a successful union are slim. Transition is unsettling to most people, and it disrupts their ability to attend to their work. This is true for people in any setting. But the problem is especially acute at law firms because they are not as multitiered as corporations, and because lawyers, by nature, are risk-averse. Thus, partners and associates alike will be troubled by their uncertain standing in a newly merged firm. Will the expectations of them change? How much control will they have over their practices? Will they become redundant? When everything feels unfamiliar and uncertain, lawyers may find it difficult to maintain their self-confidence. When a firm undergoes a major transition, lawyers must find a way to tolerate ambiguity while maintaining their focus on the task at hand — namely, figuring out the new lay of the land as quickly as possible while doing their work. They will be in better shape to tackle this task if they have positive expectations about the growth of the firm and their role in it, and if they can focus on long-term benefits rather than short-term confusion. In any partnership, communication is key — even in law firms, which traditionally have a culture of secrecy, especially around compensation issues. When a firm is in transition, the old lines of communication no longer exist, and new ones haven’t necessarily been put into place. When people don’t feel they have the information they need, their anxiety is heightened, even if the reality is that there is no additional information to be shared. Rumors will be rampant, and lawyers will be on high alert for discrepancies between what senior partners and management say and how they behave. People do better with change when they feel they are honestly being kept informed. When everyone is tense and on edge, information has a calming effect. In both its verbal and written communications, management should reflect optimism about the firm’s growth, and concern for how people are coping with the confusion. Choice of words can make all the difference in how people take in the information they are given. If there is nothing new to report, it’s generally better to tell them that than to say nothing at all. It’s essential for a firm in transition to schedule a series of partner retreats, starting within six months after the effective date of the merger. These meetings can help erase old differences between merger partners by fostering trust and familiarity. Differing traditions are often one of the biggest stumbling blocks to successful mergers. Regular communication among partners can lay the foundation for the firm’s new culture. But don’t limit the process to partners: Engage people at all levels in the integration process. Depending on the size of the new firm and feasibility, create teams of people from both cultures to solve merger issues. This includes administrative staff as well. Address culture clashes directly but in the spirit of seeking solutions. The management committee, senior partners and managing partner must take the time to listen to the firm’s rank and file and demonstrate willingness to implement sound suggestions. Weekly lunches, hosted by the managing partner, are an excellent way to bring different parts of the new firm together. These should include associates and sometimes administrative staff as well. Lunches establish lines of communication, and they serve an important educational function that can have bottom-line results. If attorneys aren’t familiar with all the firm’s new areas of business, they can’t be alert to new business opportunities. Particular attention should be paid to retaining valuable associates who feel distressed about the merger. Senior associates may feel particularly vulnerable, because there are suddenly more runners on the partnership track. It’s important to nurture them. Their contributions are too lucrative, and the hiring market is too active, to neglect them. The scope and length of the transition plan will clearly vary with the size of the new firm. A single-office firm can implement a less complex plan than a national firm with dozens of offices. However, the goals of both are identical: erasing differences, easing worries, and building loyalty to the new firm. Managing partners should insist that associates and partners alike bury old animosities and abandon competitions that existed between the firms before they merged. Once two firms reach the decision to merge, they share a common goal — increasing profits — and everyone has to work toward it. It’s important to recognize the advantages the added firm brings, including new clients and the potential for greater profitability. At the same time, managing partners and management committees must pay attention to the attorneys who are emerging as the natural leaders in newly expanded practice areas. Over time, the best candidates for leadership roles will rise to the top. Be sure to elevate only those lawyers who embrace the spirit of the new firm. Leave in place what’s working well. The tendency is to want to get changes made quickly and efficiently. But when the pace is too fast, the middle tier of associates and junior partners will be completely overloaded. Before the merger occurred, they were working many, many hours. They need time to become accustomed to the new game plan while they continue to put in their billable hours. Valued attorneys who are uncertain about their positions or standing in the new firm need assurance about the learning curve and the firm’s commitment to continuing legal education and mentoring. It may not be realistic for everyone to stay, but it’s very costly when good people leave, both in terms of money and morale. (Of course, it may be desirable to have an exit plan that appeals to some partners, particularly those who were perceived as deadwood before the merger and who will be an even greater drag on the firm afterward.) The seamless merging of firm cultures takes place over time. It’s not likely to happen quickly just because business as usual is being conducted. It takes time for new working relationships to be forged and for people to come to trust one another. But if sufficient attention is paid to the process of change and growth, the newly reconfigured law firm can create a culture that reflects mutual values and goals, one that includes the talents of everyone. It will likely serve the firm well in the decades to come. Helene W. Stein is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Newton, Mass. She is a consultant to law firms and other professional groups. She can be reached at [email protected]

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