Navigating a “Merge or Die” Environment

During the past decade, law firm mergers have become critical – and powerful – communications platforms.  They create rare opportunities for private law firms to define and, in many cases, redefine themselves publicly.  When leveraged properly, mergers are one of the only times law firms have access to a captive audience of both business and legal stakeholders interested in their respective strategies.  Resulting media coverage provides immediate visibility and credibility for the newly merged firm and creates a fresh dialogue with key audiences and stakeholders moving forward.

As law firms emerge from the recession, however, they must re-examine how they manage merger communications amid increased attention on the industry’s shifting economics.

For example, The Wall Street Journal’s recent “Merge or Die” story makes for a splashy headline (or t-shirt jokes Above the Law), but the placement of this story on  Page B1 – front page of the Marketplace section – reinforces the microscope under which the industry currently operates.

The WSJ notes that demand for legal services remains relatively flat, which has spurred a significant uptick in law firm mergers as law firm leaders seek to improve profitability or more specifically, profits per partner (PPP), through acquisition.  This “buyer’s market” presents a unique and high-stakes set of challenges for law firms looking to maximize these merger milestones and communicate their newly expanded platforms to a variety of audiences.

But bridging the communications gap between “buyers” and “sellers” in this type of market is more difficult than ever.  Whether merging out of necessity or opportunity, today, law firm merger communications need to carefully balance the financials underlying the newly combined firm, which may involve $1 billion-plus in revenue, with clients searching for greater value.

It’s through this balancing exercise that law firms have the opportunity to differentiate themselves and leverage mergers as strategic platforms, not just transactions.

It has been our firsthand experience that the most successful law firm mergers, like those that created DLA Piper and WilmerHale, use this platform approach to begin telling a story around which the firm can advance its position, engage with stakeholders and share its next chapter.   The merger that created DLA Piper, for instance, was initially met with a range of skepticism but the firm leveraged that interest and has carefully communicated its strategy in the media to help build its brand.  Through this strategic platform, DLA Piper now enjoys coverage that strongly credentials the firm, such as last week’s Wall Street Journal story that describes the firm as a “global powerhouse”.

Today, anything less will simply fuel this “merge or die” dynamic.

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