The frenzied merger activity that has taken place in the global legal market over the past few years has led to a series of link-ups between the major international firms and local law firms, and as a consequence, managing integration has become a critical skill.
I experienced the challenge first hand when developing an office in Mexico for White & Case from 1991-2000. This included the successful integration of Mexican lawyers on an independent basis and from a prominent local firm.
For the managing partner of the new local office, some very basic rules apply. In Mexico, many firms tend to be small or medium-sized, with significant authority and rights to compensation held by a founding partner or small group of partners. The management approach and professional practice model of local firms may differ significantly from the more institutional approach taken by most international firms. While it is clear that all lawyers need to understand the global approaches of their new firms, it should not be forgotten that this is a two-way process. The local firm may have valuable experience and local knowledge from which the international institution may benefit.
A common fear of local lawyers upon entering into an affiliation is that their professional time will be consumed with new and burdensome administrative tasks. These concerns can be allayed when lawyers understand that the time they commit to getting to grips with new systems will buy them enormous benefits in terms of the efficiency and profitability that comes with the sophisticated management information that can be produced by the global resources of an international firm.
Partners responsible for the integration of a local firm must make every effort to ensure that the international firm’s clients are familiar with its new capabilities. However, many forget the crucial importance of selling the new team to internal clients. It is essential that all lawyers across the global firm are in a position to raise client awareness of the firm’s ability to offer new services in a local market.
Quality and consistency are clearly critical to the success of the international business. While local attorneys will be experts in their own jurisdictions, wider technical and soft skills training can be invaluable.
Many local firms or lawyers interested in affiliating themselves with an international firm are seeking greater stability, resources and a transparent set of professional and management rules applied on an objective basis. Notwithstanding any apparent, but potentially superficial, awareness on the part of the local lawyers of the way in which international firms operate regarding compensation policies and career trajectory, extensive efforts should be made to the appropriate extent to clarify the rules of the game for local partners and associates.
Additionally, the expected professional career path, from trainee to associate to partner with performance expectations and timing, should be clarified for local lawyers that have become part of the international institution.
It is important during the start-up and integration period to pay attention to the morale of the local professional personnel to ensure that uncertainty or dissatisfaction does not set in. At this time the maxim “an hour in the bar is worth 10 in the office” is especially true. Organising social events can, even though it is a relatively small gesture, go a long way towards increasing the propensity of the local personnel to cooperate during what may be a difficult period until the long-term benefits of the integration process become visible or are achieved.
Kenneth Lee, a partner at White & Case, participated in the 1991 establishment of the Mexico City office