Joining forces on the road to Damascus

Merger mania has hit the legal profession once more. This week, The Lawyer carries stories of six firms that have headed in this direction, while a joint-survey with accountants Willott Kingston Smith indicates that nearly half the firms in the South East are planning mergers.

But, as all who have merged will say, it is not an easy option to take. Nor is it necessarily the right solution for the firm that goes down this route from a position of weakness. For 57 per cent of firms, according to the survey, the main factor behind a merger is rationalisation of costs, while for 48 per cent it is diversification into other specialist areas. New management ideas is considered a relatively unimportant rationale for most firms.

There is a reluctance to be seen as being swallowed up by a bigger firm, with most firms that are considering mergers happy to look at smaller firms as partners but with only half considering bigger ones. As the survey points out, the problem with most firms is management. Despite all the theories floating around on law firm management, it seems that only a few stick. Is there such a beast as the perfectly managed firm? Indeed, how many firms are actually well managed. According to a recent survey carried out by The Lawyer on lifestyle in the profession, few regarded their firms are well managed, seeing them as autocratic, and unable to communicate with their staff.

But if nearly half the firms in the South East are planning on mergers, management is an issue which they are going to have to focus on. For firms looking to enter the millennium in a position of strength, management is the key issue, not merger.

Right now, firms are showing signs of vulnerability as they consider their options, particularly smaller firms, most of whom operate without any management or marketing strategy. Only by undergoing a "road to Damascus" conversion can many firms hope for survival.