Mergers and alliances have become a valuable strategy for growing with clients and entering new markets. If the union is right, the resulting entity can immediately gain greater capacity, expertise, and market prominence to respond to new opportunities on multiple fronts.
Information technology, especially Intranet and Extranet technology, can play an important role in the success of a merger. It can make your firm "merger ready" to quickly blend talents and resources with your new partner, so that you hit the ground running. Technology can act as a "merger glue" that bonds the organization together and leverages resources to produce tangible benefits for clients, lawyers and staff. It can help create a new identity and culture that is neither "mine" nor "yours" but "ours".
The same principles apply to any situation where the organization undergoes sudden rapid growth, such as lateral hires or fast expansion. While nothing works better than face-to-face interaction, technology can connect people to the new organization and leverage its combined resources for the benefit of the individual.
MORE THAN A NAME CHANGE
It is easy to understand why technology is not a primary consideration in pre-merger discussions. Fundamental issues, such as firm governance, compensation, alignment of capital and lawyer, client and practice compatibilities have to come first.
However, once the merger terms are agreed upon, the new management must consider how information technology can help transform the organization and advance merger objectives. Priority must be given to those technologies that can produce immediate results to strengthen the new entity. In order to make the merger more than just a new name, a new letterhead, and a new Web site, the management must give priority to creating communication, collaboration and community across the organization.
A law firm merger typically creates an organization that has two or more physical locations, practising in multiple jurisdictions or countries, having differing areas of expertise, and sometimes speaking two or more languages. Of course, each office has its own client base, policies, procedures, people, resources and firm culture. In addition, each office has its own databases, production systems and information systems, so finding immediate compatibility between offices is highly unlikely.
PRIORITIZE TECHNOLOGY THAT CONNECTS
What type of technology can bond the new organization and advance the firm-wide objectives of communication, collaboration and community? Technologies that take priority are those that can be deployed quickly across multiple locations. In addition, they must be intuitive for the user, dynamic in content, targeted to particular members or role functions in the firm, and designed to show direct merger benefits to all users.
E-mail is an obvious first choice. Everybody has it, everybody knows how to use it, and messages can be targeted to specific users. However, if e-mail and telephones are the principal bonds between merged offices, how does this create any greater advantage than dealing with an unrelated law firm? Basic communication technologies are essential, but they offer no distinct advantage to a merged firm. They do not create a sense of the organization or the culture.
Video-conferencing technology can immediately help in cross-office meetings, collaboration and getting to know each other better. It allows people to connect to each other visually and promotes a team approach. Although the initial outlay is somewhat expensive, video conferencing leverages collective resources to deliver tangible benefits to the participants. Web conferencing and an assortment of new Internet-based real time collaboration tools offer alternative ways to collaborate on specific projects or cases, regardless of location.
INTRANET IS THE DAILY GLUE
In the critical period following a merger, the law firm needs to establish one common communication platform that engages and involves people at all levels in the new organization. An Intranet is particularly suited to act as merger glue in this diverse environment.
An Intranet is a private Web site accessible through the internal network by all authorized members of the firm. An Extranet is a private, secure Web site accessible by two or more organizations, usually between a law firm and a client. The distinctions sometimes blur when two or more law firms merge, since "inside" and "outside" depends on how they connect and share.
In a firm-wide Intranet, a wealth of cross-office information and resources become accessible through one simple tool, a browser. It can be deployed rather quickly and the interface is intuitive. Most importantly, it can deliver information to lawyers and staff without the delay, battle and expense of first replacing existing internal systems.
While many firms already may have some form of Intranet, few have developed one that specifically addresses multi-office merger objectives. Here are some of the special circumstances that should be considered in a merger glue Intranet.
A merger is first and foremost about people and change. The rapid pace of change in a merger stresses people. A firm-wide Intranet can introduce a new inclusive information platform that requires little or no adaptation or training. It leaves existing production processes in place and is one of the least disruptive systems that can be implemented.
Establish Identity and Culture
After the office receptions and retreats are over, most law firm members have little extra time for daily interaction with their new counterparts. A firm-wide Intranet can become the one reliable common denominator between all members in all offices. It can focus on the bigger picture while delivering a direct benefit to the individual. It can help establish a new, separate identity and culture for the organization, and it can foster a sense of community between offices.
If one office already has an Intranet, it is possible to extend it across other offices rather quickly. However, simply imposing one firm's Intranet on the other offices tends to negate the effect of creating something that is "ours".
Simultaneous Targeted Communication
Transition leads to uncertainty, and uncertainty leads to speculation. People adapt better to change when they feel they are being kept honestly informed. Frequent direct communication can relieve some of the tension of a merger. A firm-wide Intranet allows users at every location to access the same information at the same time in the same way.
Moreover, the firm-wide Intranet allows the firm to choose its message carefully and deliver it directly to all members. Messages can be targeted to specific groups within the firm. In a multinational or multilingual merger, the firm can improve clarity and connect better with individuals by delivering important information in the language of the user. The entire Intranet interface can be multilingual if desired.
Who are we? Who knows what?
A firm-wide Intranet can provide a single point of access to information that spans all offices. Essential firm knowledge, such as personnel directories, committees, departments, practice groups and areas of expertise, can be consolidated for access by all members in all offices. Similarly, information and discussion areas for cross-office practice groups can help lawyers make better use of the resources and skills available within the new organization.
To create a cohesive new organization, all lawyers need access to similar information about their work, their team and their clients, regardless of the underlying office systems. The absence of good firm-wide comparable information during the fragile beginning of a merged firm can be detrimental to both lawyers and clients.
A firm-wide Intranet can be an information channel that resides above the internal systems. It can tap diverse sources of information (such as two otherwise incompatible billing systems) to present equivalent information items (caseload, WIP, A/R, etc.) to lawyers at each office. This gives all lawyers quick, accurate decision support information, even before the underlying production systems are converted.
In any merger, there are serious technical and business implications to letting a diverse group of new users into a protected network. A firm-wide Intranet can be personalized to deliver only the information that is relevant to the individual. Information can be personalized based on the office, role, and security level of the individual. Ethical walls can be maintained and respected.
For example, a junior associate in the Calgary office would be able to monitor his own work-in-progress or billings for his clients, but he could not view information on the law firm's major accounts. On the other hand, a Vancouver partner in charge of the Securities Department may view her clients, plus the performance of her office, plus the performance of each member of her department. Targeted information can be lethal.
IT'S ABOUT PEOPLE
It takes time for people to learn to trust one another and to trust the new organization. It can be very costly when good people or good clients leave. That's why it is critical for management to implement a technology strategy that specifically benefits and unites the participants. Nothing replaces face-to-face interaction, but the right information technology can support and advance the objectives of your new merged organization.
It can help humanize an unknown new entity, and make people feel the new firm belongs to them. It can create a distinct new identity and reduce uncertainty through clear communication to the individual. Most importantly, it can clearly demonstrate the promise, benefits and collective strength of the new firm.
Dan C. Felean is a principal of PensEra Knowledge Technologies, a national consulting firm that specializes in knowledge management strategies and technologies for law firms and corporate law departments. See www.pensera.com.