Check your compatibility

IT integration is vital to a successful merger. David Poole offers some advice on how to achieve a seamless marriage. David Poole is IT director at Addleshaw Booth & Co. A merger of two major law firms is a complex business. One of the many issues to be considered early on is: Are the firms' IT and telephone systems compatible?

In an era when fast and efficient communication is taken for granted, IT integration is essential. Clients must come first and from day one need to see a "seamless service" in the new firm's IT systems, telephone and overall communications.

In the case of Addleshaw Booth & Co, formed from a merger in February of Addleshaw Sons & Latham and Booth & Co, there was a great deal in common between the IT systems of the two merger partners. Both firms used the Arista accounts system and both used the WordPerfect word processing package, although different versions.

The major IT differences lay in the respective e-mail systems – Microsoft versus Novell's GroupWise. But there were also many new areas to be developed. Both firms had already invested heavily in IT systems and resources and both were committed to continue this investment.

Despite the similarities, there was still a great deal to do. From day one it was essential that the merged firms' fee earners and staff had an integrated approach to IT. Our clients were promised a "seamless service" and access to the firm's 800-plus partners and staff through either office. We had to deliver – and we did.

On the IT management side, setting clear priorities was essential. The IT manager was made aware of the merger discussions prior to the public announcement, and time had been spent assessing the systems and defining priorities. IT resources from both offices could then come together quickly to develop a common action plan.

Essentially you have to manage people's expectations and be very clear about what is a "must have" and what is a "nice to have". Otherwise, there is the temptation for people to view the process as an opportunity to change everything.

There were a great many issues to tackle, from some simple ones to those that were more complex. The approach adopted was for project teams, involving IT staff from both the Leeds and Manchester offices being established, to look at individual areas such as the accounts system, e-mail, word processing and so on.

Some involved just IT people. Others, such as the house style project team, involved staff right across the firm. For example, in the development of macros for letters, memos, reports, faxes and so on, all of which were products of the new corporate identity being developed simultaneously by the marketing team.

On 1 February 1997, the new integrated system went live. There were no crashes. Nor were there any other unforeseen disasters, although, if there had been, a manual back-up system had been prepared. Suppliers were also on standby with replacement machines.

The new house style was implemented and all users were trained so that they were operational. The work on IT integration in the early months of the merger was going on at the same time as plans were being finalised for a major office move of 380 staff to a new building in Leeds – a move which happened on time at the end of June.

The following are a few points to remember when undergoing a link-up on the scale of the Addleshaws and Booth & Co merger:

Set project teams and set priorities, involving IT staff from both sites.

Involve IT people for projects with IT implications.

Imagine the worst-case scenario and plan for it.

Make sure the partnership keeps clients well-informed so that they feel comfortable about the merger.

Remember that successful IT integration may require significant financial investment.

You may also have to put your IT development work on hold.

A bigger company may be able to demand more competitive prices and better service.

It is also essential not to:

Forget to keep the client informed

Underestimate the time you will need. Be firm about what you can and cannot deliver in the time available and say "no" to non-essential work.

Forget to notify your change of name and all the relevant licensing authorities maintenance companies, suppliers and so on. You may have to negotiate new credit limits.

Say "yes" when you mean "no". If you genuinely cannot solve a problem in the time available, say so, but offer an interim measure and plan a long-term solution.

Forget to check that processes such as conflict checks are performed.