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Merging law firms emphasize people during transition

‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a new organization, affect positive change and truly focus on this as a combination,’ says Jason St. John, the Baltimore-based head of the integration for Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP, who has traveled to the firm’s offices across the country since the merger was formalized Sept. 1. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a new organization, affect positive change and truly focus on this as a combination,’ says Jason St. John, the Baltimore-based head of the integration for Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP, who has traveled to the firm’s offices across the country since the merger was formalized Sept. 1. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

When Saul Ewing LLP and Arnstein & Lehr LLP merged Sept. 1, Jason M. St. John kept his partner status and added a new title: head of the integration. St. John has lived out of his suitcase the last two months, travelling to 11 of the new firm’s offices across the country.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a new organization, affect positive change and truly focus on this as a combination,” said St. John. “This is a combination of two law firms who thought that combining forces would be a benefit to their clients.”

More law firms view merging or acquiring other firms as the best way to expand services for clients and increase their geographic footprint. But after the press releases announcing the deal are sent out and the office signs and stationery are changed, the more difficult, nuanced task begins of acclimating attorneys to the new combined firm.

“It is extremely important that the leadership understand change is difficult for most people; therefore the integration plan needs to be designed with that in mind,” said Randi Lewis, director at global attorney consultancy firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, which assisted in the Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr combination.

For St. John, that has meant making more than 400 attorneys from Boston to Miami to Chicago feel like they are part of one firm. An executive committee composed of members of both firms believed in the need to separate their operational integration from the people and firm practices.

For the former Ober|Kaler, which merged with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson on Jan. 1, its move was a dramatic change for some attorneys, as the regional firm grew from 105 lawyers to 700.

“Many of my colleagues at Ober have only worked at one law firm,” said James E. Edwards Jr., managing shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Baltimore office. “None of us had been through a process like this before.”

Making connections

When the two firms decided to merge, they created teams of people to focus on different aspects of the transition. By last December, Baker Donelson employees were in the Ober|Kaler offices meeting with board directors, practice leaders and people in charge of various systems including accounting and technology, Edwards said.

Once the firms flipped the switch on the merger Jan. 1, the “Herculean effort” of checking conflicts between clients from both firms began at full speed, he added.

“You do some of that work pre-merger and then have to do it more finely, you have to check every potential conflict,” Edwards said.

While Ballard Spahr is no stranger to mergers, its pact with Minneapolis-based Lindquist & Vennum, effective Jan. 1, is the largest the firm has ever done. (Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr also merged with media law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz on Oct. 1.) The combined firm will have more than 650 lawyers in 15 offices nationwide; Lindquist & Vennum’s Minneapolis office alone has 100 lawyers.

“The principles are the same, it just makes it more difficult when you’ve got that number of people,” said Ballard Spahr Chairman Mark S. Stewart.

The Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr integration team is made of nine people, including lawyers from different departments and offices, as well as leadership from the marketing and recruiting departments. The team meets monthly in a different office and focuses on connecting lawyers and practice areas, St. John said.

“The top priority is for our lawyers to know the capability and expertise of lawyers at both firms,” he said. “We want to highlight new areas of expertise from each firm and facilitate those connections.”

As part of that effort, the firm has set up an email address where people ask questions about areas of expertise, which has so far received more than 200 emails, St. John said. The firm also sends out emails multiple times a week titled “Did you know,” highlighting various areas of expertise at the firm, he said.

Ballard Spahr, which is beginning its transition with Lindquist & Vennum, has set up a similar platform where attorneys from each firm can access a biographical sketch of people’s interests and client lists, said Jon M. Laria, the managing partner in Ballard Spahr’s Baltimore office. The merged firm will retain the Ballard Spahr name.

‘Reflective mode’

Saul Ewing’s Baltimore office has played in a role in bringing the two firms together, hosting clients for the Ravens’ game earlier this month against the Bears alongside colleagues from Chicago, which was home to Arnstein & Lehr’s largest office.

The firm will also have a partners retreat in the Windy City next month to talk about a shared vision for the new firm and educate colleagues on expertise, clients and other aspects of relationship building. A spring retreat for all attorneys has been planned with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion, done in conjunction with the diversity and inclusion committees of the respective firms.

The merged firm’s largest office remains in Chicago, but managing partner Barry F. Levin is in the Baltimore office and administrative functions are run out of Philadelphia.

“Our firm does not have a headquarters and we like it that way,” St. John said. “It’s helpful to the integration effort.”

St. John said the two firms “dated for a while” by collaborating on client matters and started to build trust.

“It made doing the deal a lot easier,” he said.

Lewis, the Baltimore-based consultant, said forming bonds early is key to a successful merger.

“Cultural integration starts occurring intentionally or just granularly during the courtship process, during the interview process because people are in their mind determining whether the people they’re meeting are a cultural fit,” Lewis said.

At Baker Donelson, one of the main reasons the two firms decide to merge was to increase the reach of each firm’s robust health care practices.

“We had complimentary skill sets that made a lot of sense,” Edwards said.

As part of their branding effort and to spread the word about the merger, the combined firm named its health care practice Baker Ober Health Law.

Now that the combined firm has almost a year under its belt, Baker Donelson is in “reflective mode,” said Edwards.

“Now we have the opportunity to really revisit the reasons why we merged,” Edwards said, “It’s been a very hectic but really exciting time. I’m optimistic to see what the future is going to bring.”


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