Merger communication plans: 10 questions to help your law firm prepare

After a pandemic-induced slowdown in law firm mergers last year, analysts are predicting a rebound as leaders refocus on their long-term strategy. In the first quarter of 2021, 26 mergers were announced, according to Altman Weil’s MergerLine report, a 52 percent increase from the same period in 2020.

But mergers are not easy to pull off. They can create cultural clashes, conflicts and confusion. Clear and coherent messaging for internal and external audiences is essential to mitigate some of those dangers. Here are 10 questions to make sure you are prepared.

What’s the story? Clearly articulating the value of any combination should be firm leadership’s top priority. That may sound obvious, but it’s still remarkable how little thought some law firm leaders have given it. To develop the most powerful story, ask: How will clients, colleagues and prospective clients and recruits benefit from the merger? Your messages and overall story must consider and resonate with each of these audiences. Keep editing the answer until it is as tight as possible. Firm leaders and communications teams will be referring to and repeating it often.

Do you have a communications plan that addresses each stage? Mergers take time and play out in many stages. There are preliminary talks, more formal negotiations, and partnership votes. Make sure you understand what’s at stake during each stage so if there are leaks (more on that below) you can respond appropriately. Keep in mind mergers are fluid and it may be difficult to make definitive public statements early in the process. That said, should the news get out, it is important you maintain control of the narrative and not let market speculation confuse your clients and internal stakeholders. Remember that any information you circulate in writing has the potential to leak, so keep the circle small early on.

Who’s the primary spokesperson? Selling a merger to clients, colleagues and the media is challenging and time-consuming. When it comes to the latter, consider putting the role of spokesperson in the hands of one person to make consistent messaging easier. If the merger has been formalized, this may mean making the managing partner available for detailed interviews to discuss the strategy and how both clients and the firm will benefit. If it is still early, it may mean attaching the managing partner’s name to a holding statement. When it comes to clients and colleagues, leadership at both firms should be armed with talking points to help assure these key audiences that the merger is in everyone’s best interest.

Are you prepared for leaks? The longer merger talks go on, the likelihood of leaks increases. Be ready with prepared statements for the press, internal communications for colleagues and messaging to address any concerns or questions from clients.

Having a rapid response team in place is also a good idea. When questions come in from reporters, clients or colleagues, you should have a clear process to respond quickly. Being flat-footed or scrambling to obtain statement approvals creates unneeded stress and can result in missteps.

Do you have a FAQs document for external and internal audiences? As a merger gets close to the finish line, you will want to disseminate information as efficiently as possible. In addition to providing FAQs to all staff and attorneys, you’ll want to provide attorneys with FAQs designed for clients who may have questions about how the merger will affect their matters and relationship with the firm.

Who are your top media targets? Before announcing a merger, have a list of preferred media outlets ready. Based on the list, consider offering an exclusive to one. If one reporter has been threatening an early scoop based off preliminary information, you may consider offering them the full story in the form of an exclusive to buy yourself time. The benefit of an exclusive is that it ensures coverage and allows you to shape the story. The potential drawback is angering a competitor outlet.

Are you ready for the media’s questions? Potential client conflicts, culture fit, finances and compensation are topics that will all be on the table. Be ready. Make sure your spokesperson is media-trained and armed with strong talking points. With preparation, even tough questions are an opportunity to tell a positive story about the new firm.

Do you have different stories – or substories – for different markets? There may be compelling news hooks at a local level that shine a positive light on the firm. For example, news outlets in the markets in which the legacy firms are headquartered or have their largest offices may be interested in a local angle that differs from the national narrative. Don’t overlook those opportunities and consider whether you should have local spokespeople prepared and available for interviews.

What’s your social media plan? Social media will be a central hub for many clients and prospects to learn about your firm’s merger. Make sure you have a crisp message that articulates the value proposition of the new firm. Consider having a plan to encourage attorneys to share the announcement of the merger and favorable news coverage.

What are your day-two, week-two and year-two communication plans? After the merger is official and public, how will you keep your new firm – and potentially new firm name – front and center? In addition to the managing partner, who will be your key practice-specific spokespeople you want to promote as faces of the new firm. It’s never too soon to think about the metrics you will want to be judged on and sell the merger’s success. They are fodder for anniversary stories.

And with all of the focus on “big picture” messaging and engaging the media, don’t lose sight of the basic blocking and tackling that will be essential in protecting and growing your brand. Have attorneys updated their email signatures and LinkedIn bios? Have the various informational, award and ranking websites your firm appears on incorporated the firm’s new name and logo? Have you ordered the new stationery? These questions may sound mundane, but they are the exact type of thing that can turn a smooth merger into an unnecessarily bumpy one.

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