In the wake of yesterday’s tie-up between SJ Berwin and King & Wood Mallesons — to form the snappily-named King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin — grizzled merger veteran WaitroseLaw shares her hard-learned experiences of law firm integration…
The recent law firm merger frenzy means that the legal market has never seen so many shiny new corporate colour schemes, verb-free “strategic growth plans” and piles of discarded branded stationery. For partners, a merger may be an exciting opportunity to boost profit per equity partner (PEP), rationalise overheads and improve the firm’s profile. For trainees and associates, though, it’s a brutal struggle for survival requiring the diplomacy of Hillary Clinton, the strategic planning of a chess Grand Master and the subtle communication skills of Anthony Weiner. A few survival strategies…
1. Know your merger
(In which WaitroseLaw succumbs to her lifelong fondness for the Cosmo-style quiz…) Has your office suddenly been invaded by tanned Australians sporting impeccable business casual and directional facial hair? If so, you may be part of a Sexy International Tie-up! Is your firm name at least 11 words long (an exponential increase matched only by your chargeable hours target)? Congratulations, you’ve got a Transatlantic Tango. A word to the wise: if you come in one Monday to find the name on the door has changed, your last three salary payments consisted of dried beans and a sack of rice and bailiffs have seized your chair, you may be embroiled in a Thinly Disguised Bailout. Keep your chin up, but have a think about updating your CV.
2. Knowledge is power
Rare is the merger which doesn’t unleash a frenzy of self-preservation among the firm’s partners. Surprising as it may seem, this is not an opportunity to demonstrate your loyalty, discretion and general high-mindedness. The canny junior creates a network of spies as ruthless as the Stasi at the height of its infamy and with a technological sophistication to rival PRISM. Or, at the very least, learns to spot when a partner is speaking to a recruitment consultant (viz: “I can’t really speak right now but if you’d like to take my mobile number…”) or suborning your colleagues (“Fancy a coffee? Just a catch-up. Just…because”). Then figure out if, when and how to spill the beans for maximum advantage, practicing your best guileless expression for that critical moment.
3. Embrace your vices (or develop some new ones)
If you want to know what’s really going on (and hopefully be included in any exciting plans to jump ship), you will need to throw caution, health and your AA sponsor to the wind and make sure you become part of every pub trip and fag break. Your pocket will be lighter, your complexion ashy and your eyes bloodshot, but at least you’ll be in on the gossip. What to do if you’re a clean-living soul? Learn from Sex and the City’s Samantha: breathe through your nose and suppress your gag reflex.
4. What’s in a name?
Deciding on a name is generally the hardest part of a merger negotiation — hardly surprising for a decision involving the lethal cocktail of ego, stubbornness and utter triviality. The result is almost always an unwieldy clutter of syllables that sounds awkward and pleases nobody. Your colleagues will spend weeks getting the name wrong when they answer the phone. But you, dear reader, will fall into no such traps. Practice makes perfect, and your flawless rendition will be bound to impress your new bosses in the first fraught post-merger weeks.
5. A seat at the table
Second only to the great name debate is the internecine wrangling over the new seating plan. Don’t worry; this will take them months to figure out. But be sure to prepare: work out which desks offer maximum leg room with minimum screen visibility and bring all your well-honed negotiation skills to bear to ensure a life of unobserved internet browsing and unimpeded circulation.
6. The parting of the ways
Sadly, one of the main attractions of a merger for your average £500k/year partner is the opportunity to get rid of some assistants earning a fraction of that (not to mention those greedy support staff on even less — once they’ve worked round the clock to sort out the new accounts and IT systems, that is). Unfortunately, there’s often very little you can do to challenge the decision effectively — and with this week’s introduction of fees for bringing employment tribunal claims, the government is doing its best to make it even harder.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t send a few shivers down HR’s spine. If you’re pregnant or have been bullied by your boss, now would be an excellent time to mention it. If all else fails: interrupt the redundancy meeting repeatedly to ask them to repeat what they just said, raise an eyebrow, and make a great show of writing it down verbatim. You may be able to get them to stump up some more cash out of sheer paranoia — something which is never in short supply in a law firm.
WaitroseLaw is a lawyer with luscious organic selection, impeccable ethics and dinner party skills. She is not affiliated with or authorised by Waitrose.