Mergers. Trying to make a marriage work

Paul Lee, senior partner of Addleshaw Booth & Co, takes every available opportunity since announcing the engagement of Addleshaw Sons & Latham to Leeds firm Booth & Co to thumb his nose at the merger of Dibb Lupton Broomhead and Alsop Wilkinson. “That was no marriage,” he snorts. “Surely no one fell for that nonsense.”

Addleshaws' merger with Booths, on the other hand, was the perfect love match, according to Lee. Addleshaw Booth & Co became one on 1 February, and celebrated the day with a wedding cake, champagne and balloons. And what a cake: Addleshaws' Paul Lee and Booths' Mark Jones, the blushing bride and groom, wedged together in the icing.

The Dibb Lupton Alsop union last October, on the other hand, was more like a Dickensian wedding, with pretty little Alsops taken by great hairy Dibbs. The merger has made Dibb Lupton Alsop the seventh largest firm in the country and until the next super-merger – likely to be Cobbetts and Halliwell Landau – the largest in the North West by quite a margin.

At least neither had to get an annulment, like Donn & Co last year. Raymond Donn's boutique practice in Manchester got itself hitched to the firm next door – Philip Conn & Co, a small specialist practice with a good reputation for intellectual property. It lasted barely a month.

Conn & Co spokesman Ian Morris had announced the demerger to his partners as due to “a clash of personalities”.

At least Dibbs and Alsops have actually consummated the union, with partners from each firm working together in each department nationwide, and moving in together this summer to the brand-new gold-glass offices behind Manchester's new concert hall in the Bridgewater complex. Addleshaws and Booths will stay chastely on each side of the Pennines (both firms in new offices this summer), with discreet dashes back and forth along the M62.

To the suggestion that there might be a culture clash between York and Lancaster, Paul Lee said brusquely that “there's more of a culture clash between Manchester and Liverpool than Manchester and Leeds”.

True for some. Lace Mawer has never quite been able to come to terms with its marriage of convenience. The Liverpool firm of Lace Mawer is old blood, descended straight from the 18th-century lawyer Joshua Lace; AW Mawer, on the other hand, is a parvenu, only arriving on the Manchester scene in the 1940s. The firms, so admirably suited on paper, have to some extent lived separate lives, and in 1995 there were whispers of a divorce.

Peter and Mark Halliwell (father and son) had joined Lace Mawer in Manchester and promptly left again, and then ructions became all too apparent. The merger eventually held, but at the expense of Manchester-based senior partner Stuart Harper, who emerged at Halliwells (with the repatriated Peter and Mark) in December.

Lace Mawer's senior partner in Liverpool, Gordon Jeffrey, denied that a demerger was ever on the cards. “I've never heard anything about it. I don't know where these stories come from,” he said.

Now, though, the firm has announced its forthcoming nuptials with southerners Berrymans on 1 May. Lace Mawer partner Stephen Cheshire insists that this is a merger of true equals, both firms being the same size with a neat synthesis of work. Similar cultures, too, so no major headaches forecast. “Not necessarily any redundancies, either,” says Cheshire. “In fact, the staff have been assured of that.” But, with the integration of systems, will there be some shedding of support staff? “None planned at the moment,” says Cheshire.

The top brass at Dibbs are by turns amused and irritated by the whispers that make their way out of Dibb Lupton Alsop. One is that partners have not seen as much of the profits as they would like. Roger Lane-Smith, who is the Manchester-based deputy senior partner of the national practice, is unsympathetic. “Partners are paid exceptionally well; they will get their divvies as well, but they have no cause to feel hard done by.”

It could be due to the disparity between management styles; Dibbs has a reputation for aggression, if not ruthlessness, but according to Dibb Lupton Alsop trainees in Liverpool, the reputation is unfounded. “I've never seen any evidence of abrasiveness. The image is something of a myth,” says Fiona Wilkinson.

Talk to the ex-Alsops secretarial staff in Liverpool and Manchester, though, and you will not find the same impression. Creating a central switchboard for Dibbs' seven offices meant that receptionists have lost half their job and miss being at the heart of things. Secretaries, too, have less involvement with clients than before, which has upset many of them. The atmosphere in the ex-Alsops reception areas is markedly more subdued than that in the original Dibbs offices, but that is seen as likely to change when the firm moves into its new Bridgewater home.

The switch to new systems nationally has meant inevitable teething troubles and subsequent complaints from all levels. New employment contracts all round, longer hours, more rigid discipline and sundry irritations are set against longer holidays, better pension provision and better career prospects, but there is still whingeing.

But Dibb Lupton Alsop has lost fewer people post-merger than expected. The first casualty was Alsops' PR manager Fay Armstrong; the irony of losing its communications expert at a time when good communications is critical did not go unnoticed.

The persistent leaking of gossip to the press from Dibbs suggests that the firm got its internal communications wrong pre- and post-merger.

By contrast, Addleshaws seems to have gone to great lengths to keep every member of staff informed and involved, and so far there is little evidence of disgruntlement in the gossip shops around Manchester.

The merger was announced in style; all staff were taken to hotels in Manchester or Leeds, given champagne and the big presentation. Ian Hargreaves, who works in Addleshaws' postroom, was impressed.

“Actually, I knew beforehand because I'd seen a fax that had come through on the Friday, but I kept it to myself,” says Hargreaves.

The firm's senior partner, David Tully, promised no redundancies, so staff were reassured. “David never lies,” says Hargreaves with conviction.

The merged firm's managing partner, Mark Jones, has inevitably had to deal with some worried staff, despite the efforts to reassure. Melting down two sets of job titles into one means problems, although Jones insists that it was not as hard as all that. “Believe it or not, it was a happy coincidence that the split was very even between the two firms. Ask the market who would make the best senior partner, the answer would have been Paul Lee; ditto me for managing partner, and each of the new group heads.”

It is early days for ABC – there may yet be fall-out if Jones and the board have missed a trick. The next North West merger is expected to be Cobbetts and Halliwell Landau – and that will be intriguing. The arch-conservative Cobbetts getting into bed with thrusting commercialist Halliwells could cause some ructions. Already there are whispers of a shake-out of faces that will not fit in a new partnership, but time will tell.