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Best Practice: Law firm upstream mergers/acquisition - Merging with a larger firm

Asked and Answered

By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Q. Our firm is a three partner general practice firm in a small community. Our ages are 72, 68, and 64 respectively.  Our firm has not adequately prepared for succession/exit of the partners. We have over the years hired associates but have been unable to keep them - they have all left for greener pastures. We are now contemplating merger with a much larger firm that has 40 plus attorneys. We have had several meetings at the office and we have provided them with our financials. They have not provided us with detailed information. We are getting frustrated. It has been over four months since we began talking with this firm and we seem to be "stuck" and not maintaining momentum. We have other options that we have just begun exploring. How can we get "unstuck" and move this process along?

A. Right off the bat - admit that this is not a merger of equals - it is more of an acquisition.  Hopefully, you have discussed firm name, whether your existing office will be retained or closed, and the future roles of each you as well as your staff. These are often deal breakers and many firm merger talks never get past this point.

You really need a project plan - or timeline - for a project like this with due dates and milestones. Otherwise, the process will continue to drift. You need a timeline for this merger candidate as well as other options that you are pursuing. I would contact your contact in the larger firm and agree on a timeline. You might want to ask them to provide you with a proposal within an agreed date - say 30 days and see what they come back with - it could turn out that their partners are not able to come to any consensus - and the merger simply dies.

If the firm does come back to you with a proposal - now it is your turn to do your due diligence. Start with the people - do you like these people and do you believe you would enjoy working with them? You should insist on a few social functions, etc. so you can get a feel for their people. Don't take a shortcut here.  Ask for their financials, personnel rosters, clients lists, partner demographics, list of partners that have retired and are receiving payouts and upcoming retirements in the future.

Insure that you obtain an understanding for the work culture of the firm? Are you compatible? Obtain all the detail that you can about governance and structure, the compensation system and how it works, retirement of partners - whether funded or unfunded, and complete details on the mechanics. How will the merger/acquisition be implemented? Will accounts receivable and work in process be pooled in the new firm - or worked off and collected in the old firm? How many shares etc will you have in the firm? Are ownership shares and compensation shares different?

All of these questions, and many more, need to be addressed in order to decide whether the merger makes sense. If it does and you decide to move ahead - then you and the firm can begin putting a implementation/integration plan together.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC, (www.olmsteadassoc.com) is a past chair and member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics. For more information on law office management please direct questions to the ISBA listserver, which John and other committee members review, or view archived copies of The Bottom Line Newsletters. Contact John at jolmstead@olmsteadassoc.com.

Posted on September 28, 2011 by Chris Bonjean
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