Edge International


Building a Unitary Merged Firm: Dynamic Teaming & Abe Maslow!

Building a Unitary Merged Firm: Dynamic Teaming & Abe Maslow!

What does it take to make an integration process of two law firms really “sing”? Why are many mergers so challenged at realizing synergies, building a unitary operating model and culture, and acting upon a single set of external priorities?

In fairness, all firms have problems with these issues: fulfilling their commitment to autonomy tends to trump their efforts to have everyone rowing in the same direction toward shared goals.

A few table-setting observations can be made about law-firm combinations:

The truth is, integration can be a head-scratcher. Law firms deliver system/process/product-enabled “artistry” rather than “artistry”-enabled systems/processes/products (i.e., the “human being” query above). People are your revenue; people are your products; people are your assets. While integration tends to focus on “process,” if your integration plan gets the “people” equation right, you’re accomplishing a lot.

Core “people-related” key-performance indicators (KPIs) for integration might focus on these goals:

How can we support the above three KPIs? One way to look at the “people issue” is through the lens of that legal industry sage . . . human psychologist Abe Maslow!

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow defined a hierarchy of needs that explained each person’s path to fulfillment and happiness – i.e., self-actualization. He came up with three general levels of motivation:

  1. Basic – physiological (food, water, safety)
  2. Psychological – belongingness, relationships, esteem & accomplishment
  3. Self-fulfillment – self-actualization (achieving full potential)

He concluded that all humans have higher-level, less mercenary, less self-oriented paths to fulfillment that become important once the most basic and self-centered individual needs are met. Our needs become different in kind, not just in degree. Moreover, meeting our higher-order, self-actualized needs is more fulfilling than meeting our first-level, most basic needs.

“Level 1 needs” represent the most self-focused, and can be closely tied to more individual – dare I say hedonistic – desires. For our analytical purposes with law firms, Level 1 needs point us in a single direction: $. Already well-compensated “over contributors” generally support combinations because leadership will make sure to do everything it can to retain these “people assets” – they are simply too critical to the combined firm’s success to treat differently. But what about the other highly valued, high-potential partners who today place only a modest imprint on firm revenue? These latter partners are a flight risk because they likely won’t be happy with their new compensation. Firms don’t want to lose these people.

An Optimal Approach

Question: What should firms do to retain these valuable partners? Answer: Focus on Level 2 and Level 3 needs!

Translating Maslow’s hierarchy into practical integration strategies can help a combined firm create a differentiated, non-mercenary, culturally cohesive professional platform to which highly valued assets (human beings) can commit over an entire career.

At Edge, we help integrating firms put together a potent portfolio of adaptable teams to achieve important “one-firm” integration priorities. By borrowing from the really great work of organizational behaviorist Aaron Dignan as well as from Maslow, your integrating teams should be able to support certain concepts and have good answers to the questions implied in these bullets:

I don’t mean to suggest that integration efforts activated through adaptable small teams are rudderless, “Woodstockian,” feel-good exercises. Participating partners and team members will need to benefit from the strategic vision and goals of leadership, and know about the priorities being acted upon by firm leadership in a more structured way.

Note: Team goals can be informed by objectives associated with increasing revenue and acquiring more clients, and they can also be informed by the “inputs” that lead to those objectives – e.g., “If our team establishes a relationship with two executive recruiting firms, our bankruptcy group could become the law firm of choice for the ‘change agent’ CFOs they place during a search engagement.”

Once the table is set properly and larger goals and related inputs are understood, get out of the way and let your teams run!

Bonus Bullets on Merger Integration and “Teaming”

Mike White

was a practicing attorney for seven years prior to founding and operating two enterprise software companies — Sirius Systems (sold 1997) and MarketingCentral (sold 2007). He owned and managed ClientQuest Consulting, LLC for 10 years serving law firms. He holds an AB in History from Duke University and a JD from Emory University School of Law.