Issue 14, Spring 2006

When law firms merge, professional development leaders can have a significant role in ensuring that the merger succeeds. Many of the same considerations apply when a law firm acquires a group of lateral lawyers. The main article and case study of Management Solutions this quarter deal with law firm mergers and acquisitions from the standpoint of professional development personnel.

This issue also presents some suggestions for making meaningful mentor-mentee matches; a few interesting items about lawyers' billable hours and clever resources to help lawyers track their time; some recent publications by me and others; and information about upcoming conferences where I will be speaking.



Law Firm Mergers: The Role of Professional Development Leaders

Case Study: Acquiring a Group of Lawyers

Mentor-Mentee Match-Making

Billable Hours: Items of Interest


Upcoming Programs

 Law Firm Mergers: The Role of Professional Development Leaders

The legal industry has seen a spate of law firm mergers for the past several years. In 2004 and 2005, there were almost 100 mergers (47 and 49 respectively), and there have been about a dozen so far in 2006. Law firm leaders merge firms because they hope the combination will produce business synergies and economic advantages. The impact of the merger on the work, performance and careers of the lawyers who are affected by it is not the primary focus of their attention - even though the success of the merger depends on the buy-in and cooperation of these lawyers. Lawyers' work experience, performance management, and career concerns are, however, at the heart of what professional development (PD) leaders do. Involving PD early in the merger process, and making them essential members of the post-merger integration team, will facilitate the lawyers' integration and the merger's ultimate success.

It is well known that most corporate mergers fail to produce the desired benefits that led to the merger in the first place. In large part, the success or failure of a merger depends on how the post-merger integration process is handled. This is especially true in law firms. The merger cannot succeed unless the newly merged firm can marshal the collective efforts and productivity of the lawyers in both legacy firms. But mergers cause considerable change, and lawyers feel uncertain and afraid of how the change will affect their lives. Leaders of the newly merged entity must reassure and persuade them that the changes will be to their benefit. But it is difficult to manage change in a law firm in the best of circumstances, and it is especially so in what David Maister calls the "tense political drama" of a merger.

Professional development leaders can be instrumental in leading this change effort. They are uniquely equipped and positioned to help integrate lawyers from both legacy firms into the new entity. Because they deal with lawyers' performance, development and retention, PD leaders are acutely sensitive to lawyers' needs and concerns. They focus on the professional experience of lawyers, including work assignments, performance management, mentoring and training, and understand what lawyers need in order to do their work and feel engaged. PD leaders' responsibilities - and therefore, their perspectives - span across offices and practice groups. They are dedicated to improving lawyers' everyday learning and long-term careers. This engenders the kind of trust that leaders need to achieve a successful merger.

Pre-Merger Involvement of Professional Development Leaders

PD leaders should become strategic partners in the merger process as soon as it appears more likely than not that a merger will occur. They should be involved in preliminary merger discussions in order to understand what the new entity's core strategy will be, decide how that strategy will be implemented, and provide insights that may impact the shape and feasibility of the strategy. The more time the merging firms have to plan in advance, the more smoothly and rapidly they will be able integrate into a unified new entity, ready to pursue the merger's hoped-for benefits.

PD can add value during the early stages of the merger process in many ways:

  1. Cultural due diligence.
    Firms must have compatible cultures and values in order for a merger to work. When firms state their core values, they often use the same platitudes. On paper, this may make them appear very similar. In reality, however, the policies and values that look the same in writing may play out differently in everyday life. PD leaders have intimate knowledge of the real values, attitudes and concerns of their own firm's lawyers. They also know what to look for in the other firm regarding legal personnel policies, work practices, attitudes, and interpersonal behavior of the lawyers. In this way, they can help the merger team come to terms with - and express - what the new firm culture will be.
  2. Training and development.
    Involving PD leaders early allows them to understand what skills, systems, and programs lawyers will need in order to achieve the new firm's strategic objectives, and to start planning for them. PD leaders are familiar with industry practices in lawyer training and development, as well as integration efforts used for lateral attorneys and groups. They can conduct needs assessments and gather facts about the training and development infrastructure and resources of both firms. With this information, they can determine which systems, programs and approaches are best for the new entity, and set them in motion quickly when the merger is announced.
  3. Integration planning.
    PD leaders have extensive experience in planning complex orientation and training programs. They also know about the technology and physical facilities that are needed to support PD programs (e.g., videoconferencing, CLE databases, performance management software, training rooms). This expertise is valuable for planning and implementing post-merger integration efforts. The sooner PD leaders are involved in merger discussions, the faster they will be able to facilitate personnel integration projects and to ensure that appropriate and compatible technology systems and adequate physical resources are in place to meet lawyers' work, training and development needs.

Post-merger: Implementation

Many law firm partners work extremely hard to effectuate the merger. Then, when the merger is announced, they breathe a sigh of relief and assume the work is done. In fact, this is when their hard work really starts. Now they will have to persuade and motivate skeptical, anxious lawyers from two separate firms to work together and trust each other as colleagues in a single new entity. In particular, the first few weeks after the merger is a critical period in which trust- and relationship-building must take place. This requires that law firm leaders exhibit high emotional intelligence, especially the ability to empathize with and address lawyers' fears, concerns, and objections.

Leaders from both legacy firms, and especially leaders of the new entity, should be prominent, visible, accessible, and diplomatic. They should welcome - in person - as many of the lawyers in as many offices as possible. They should transmit the new firm's values and avoid or overcome the "us vs. them" or "winner/loser" mentality that sometimes accompanies a merger, especially if one of the legacy firms becomes dominant in the merged firm. They have to be able to answer questions that worry these lawyers. For instance, if the legacy firms have different billable hour requirements, compensation structures, or paths toward partnership, what will the expectations be for associates in the new firm?

While partners who handled the merger negotiations may understand the significance, synergies, and promises expected from the newly combined firm, to other lawyers the picture is not so clear. Those lawyers who were not privy to the merger negotiations may not be inspired by the new partnership's "grand vision." They need to hear candid, reassuring and inspiring explanations from law firm leaders whom they trust. Professional development personnel can support law firm leaders by arranging specialized training or coaching in presentation and communication skills for them. They can also be such leaders themselves.

Frequently, PD leaders are the first firm personnel sent to offices of the newly joined firm as "traveling ambassadors." They are well suited for this role because they usually know most of the lawyers in their own firm and sponsor activities that are designed to welcome lawyers from the other firm. PD leaders are often charged with coordinating and supporting office and practice group integration efforts. They conduct PD programs, such as mentoring and training workshops, that bring lawyers from the legacy firms together as equals. PD efforts can also promote communication throughout the firm about the merger's progress through PD events, publications, and the PD page on the intranet.

It is a good idea for PD personnel to survey the concerns and expectations of the firm's lawyers. The questions to ask might include: What do you like about your old firm's way of doing things? What are you glad to leave behind? What have you heard about the culture or practices of the firm you are merging with? What worries you about what you have heard? What are you looking forward to? Answers to such questions can yield valuable information that might otherwise be overlooked by the planning team, as well as concerns that need to be addressed promptly.

The implementation process should be monitored as it moves along. Mergers are full of unexpected surprises. The PD leader can make sure that the firm is kept apprised of any problems and challenges that come up, and that systems are in place to address them. For instance, both legacy firms may pride themselves on having good partner-associate communication. But the information given to associates, topics that can be discussed, and level of candor deemed acceptable between partners and associates may be extremely different in both firms. This may create misunderstandings or negative reactions. Personnel who are on the alert for such flash points, or are available for managing conflicts, can prevent such misunderstandings from occurring or escalating.

Impact of the Merger on the Professional Development Team

One immediate question for the new firm will be who will have responsibility for professional development. If only one of the merging firms has a professional development director, the answer may be easy. If, however, there are PD directors in both firms, the new firm will have to choose a leader for the group and make decisions about staffing and operations of the PD function. This may mean that some people lose their jobs, others are promoted, and many will see their jobs change. The whole structure of the PD function may be reorganized. PD managers who have been autonomous may suddenly have to report to a new director in a distant office.

One of the first challenges for the new PD team will be to overcome political, cultural, operational, and geographic hurdles in order to work together collaboratively. The role of the PD team in the combined firm and the functions, systems, and programs for which PD personnel will be responsible, should be determined as quickly as possible. Among the issues the new team will have to deal with are the following:

  • Exploring PD practices, programs, and policies in both legacy firms to select the best practices which the new firm will retain.
  • Finding alternative PD practices, programs, and policies that are not present in either legacy firm but will be adopted by the new firm.
  • Collaborating on PD projects that promote integration. Efforts may include mixing lawyers from different offices and practice groups to serve as faculty for training programs, on-campus recruiting panels, firm committees, and client teams.
  • Developing work-assignment systems to ensure that lawyers from both firms will work together.
  • Developing consistent, firm-wide performance standards (including benchmarks and competencies) and evaluation processes.
  • Designing orientation programs for all lawyers, introducing them to the history, mission, and culture of both legacy firms and expectations for the new firm.
  • Integrating existing CLE functions. This includes determining CLE requirements in various jurisdictions and addressing CLE tracking needs and systems, especially if the merger involves lawyers and offices in several states.
  • Constructing the new firm's comprehensive training program. A merger presents a good opportunity to assess all aspects of lawyer training, including both curriculum and delivery methods.
  • Finding ways to unite lawyers and teams who are located in different offices in several cities or within different buildings in the same city.
  • Setting up mechanisms for fostering communication within the firm. It is important to keep people informed of integration progress and activities, and to address any concerns or problems as they arise. One such mechanism might be a hotline for people to call anonymously.
  • Helping lawyers "unlearn" old practices. People facing significant change want to cling to "the way we used to do it at our old firm." PD leaders will need to spend considerable time explaining why the firm has adopted new approaches and helping people adjust to them.


 Case Study: Acquiring a Group of Lawyers

Many of the considerations for making mergers run smoothly also apply when a law firm acquires a group of lawyers. Failure to plan for integrating new lawyers can undermine the ability of those lateral lawyers to become productive, happy and profitable citizens of their new firm.

A large firm I worked with acquired a group of lawyers from another firm. Because of space constraints, these lawyers were given offices near each other on one floor - but that floor housed administrative personnel and was not near the floors where other lawyers had their offices. This was a temporary arrangement and lasted only six weeks, but it slowed the integration of the lawyers into the firm.

In addition, the firm initially neglected to incorporate the lateral lawyers into its work and culture. At first, the lateral lawyers were very busy on matters they brought with them from their prior firm. They worked with each other and not with others in the firm. Later, when they started to work with other firm lawyers, problems arose because the laterals approached work and team members "the way we did it in our old firm," which was different from what the new firm expected. They acted like a separate "firm within a firm." They kept together at firm events - when they went at all. And because they failed to form alliances and build relationships with the new firm's partners and managers, much of the client support that they had been promised failed to materialize.

A few simple steps - even though they were late - remedied much of the conflict. Those steps included:

  • Placing lateral lawyers on firm committees where they were able to interact with other lawyers, form relationships, and become involved in the management and daily operations of the firm.
  • Inviting laterals to participate as faculty in training programs for the firm and for clients. In addition to being included in established training programs, they were asked to prepare and present a seminar on a topic in their practice area for other lawyers in the firm. This gave them visibility in the firm and made other lawyers aware of their expertise.
  • Assigning peer mentors to foster acculturation. Firm partners were assigned to the lateral partners, and firm associates to lateral associates, to serve as hosts, sources of information about firm practice and culture, and contacts for questions. Peer mentors were also charged with introducing the lateral lawyers to others in the office.
  • Meetings for lateral partners with the firm's Marketing Director to discuss their current and potential business. The Marketing Director also provided information to the lateral partners about the resources available to them in the firm, and to plan ways they could team with other partners to serve the firm's existing clients and seek new business.


 Mentor-Mentee Match-Making

Matching mentors and mentees in a mentoring program requires substantial effort and discernment. Many law firm mentoring programs match people who they think will get along. But matching people because they have compatible personalities does not promote the developmental purposes of most mentoring programs. Firms should seek matches that will promote the program's goals of furthering the learning and career advancement of mentees.

Here are some suggested approaches that increase the chance that matches will be meaningful:

  • Match people on the basis of the mentee's needs and mentor's strengths. Ask mentees to state the areas where a mentor could be of help to them. Then identify possible mentors who have the knowledge, skills, interests or contacts that would meet the mentee's stated needs.
  • Ask program participants about their mentor or mentee preferences. Let them designate the characteristics they would prefer, such as career experience, practice area, personal or professional interests, or demographic features such as gender, ethnicity, or family status. The characteristics should not be random, but should relate to some objective of the mentoring program.
  • Let mentees choose their mentors. Provide a list of lawyers who volunteer to be mentors and allow mentees to select the mentors they would like. The actual matching process could be handled in various ways, e.g.:
    • On the basis of the first mentee to ask;
    • Mentees request 3-4 people and are matched with one of their choices;
    • Mentees contact potential mentors directly to interview them and/or ask if they would agree to be their mentor.
  • Firms that have core competencies or benchmarks can use them as the basis for matching. Ask mentees and mentors to state the competencies on which they want to focus. Match them on the basis of their selections.


 Billable Hours: Items of Interest
  • They really were the Good Old Days: For those partners who contend that associates do not work as hard as they did when they were associates, the facts show otherwise: In a recent NALP study, the mean number of hours billed by associates in 2004 ranged from 1,886 in firms of 10-49 lawyers up to 2,060 hours in firms with 300+ lawyers. Compare that with a 1965 ABA study that found associates billed between 1,400 and 1,600 hours (and partners billed between 1,200 and 1,400 hours) a year, and more recently, the American Lawyer Midlevel Associate Survey, which found that midlevel associates in 2005 reported billing, on average, 16 percent more than their counterparts in 1986.
  • The Truth about the Billable Hour: This is the name of a handout the Yale Law School Career Development Office offers to help students calculate the meaning and impact of law firm billable hour expectations.
  • Why didn't I think of that?: To help lawyers track their time, the Billable Hour Company sells watches and clocks with dials marked in 6 minute increments. They also publish an electronic newsletter called The Timesheet devoted to discussions of work/life balance and legal humor.



Columns. I am writing columns this year for Diversity & The Bar Magazine on topics related to diversity and mentoring. The first two columns are now available online:


Mentoring Booklets

My two booklets for mentors and mentees, Being an Effective Mentor and Working with a Mentor, have been re-issued with an updated look. The new booklets can be seen on my website and ordered from NALP at



  • Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women's Success in the Law (Thomson/Legalworks) 2006, by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, presents an excellent analysis of the obstacles women face in trying to succeed in law firms. In addition to making a compelling argument for the need for law firms to change, Rikleen provides thoughtful, creative and eminently practical suggestions for bringing those changes about. More information.

  • The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers (NALP) 2006, by legal search consultant Valerie Fontaine, is a terrific resource for lawyers contemplating career moves - and for professionals who counsel them. While written for lawyers, its insights about legal employers and the legal marketplace would be useful for professional development personnel, law firm administrators, and others working in the legal profession who are contemplating career transitions. More information.


 Upcoming Programs
  • I will be leading two panels at the 2006 NALP Annual Education Conference in San Diego, CA:
    • "Women Reaching the Top: Why and How to Implement A Successful Women's Initiative," on April 27
    • "Making the Marriage Work: The Role of Professional Development Leaders in Law Firm Mergers," on April 28

      Information about the conference can be found at

  • On July 11, I will be speaking to the Chicago Association of Legal Personnel Administrators on retention issues in law firms.


©2006 Ida Abbott Consulting