By Kimberley Kirkby, Head of RTA and Partner of Legal Futures Associate Express Solicitors
Merger activity has vastly increased within the legal services industry over the past few years. Integrating one law firm with another firm can bring a number of benefits, from back-office efficiencies to greater combined legal competencies and a strong growth trajectory.
All of these benefits will be realised more quickly when a structured approach and a well-thought through plan is successfully implemented.
“In a sense, the easy part is getting the deal done, the hard part is its execution”, comments Kimberley Kirkby, project manager of the biggest merger to date by Express Solicitors.
Six months on from acquiring Michael W Halsall Solicitors (MWHS), a well-known and respected firm that had successfully navigated the claimant personal injury market for over 30 years. Express Solicitors, one of the UK’s leading personal injury firms, was faced with integrating a team of 40 staff made up of reputable lawyers and capable support teams, over 20,000 new live cases, and a new Northwest office location.
The main objective of the integration was to ensure as smooth as possible transition for both clients and staff from day one. A timely well executed merger would avoid the loss of confidence from any client or staff member.
Starting the process early is key to a seamless transition
“The integration process started as soon as both sides felt a high level of confidence that a deal would get done. Assembling an experienced team was the first task. In the role of project manager, I was ably assisted by a number of team members that included non-legal department senior staff, many department heads from HR, IT, Finance and Operations. Once established, a detailed planning process followed, putting in place key information, an immediate control plan and prompt supervision structure.
Maintaining confidence in the people
“The top priority throughout the integration process was to maintain confidence among the MWHS team members as well as current clients. From previous acquisitions, we knew that change can be unsettling and disruptive, and we wanted to be mindful of this and be prepared. Often labelled as the ‘soft’ side of change, contrasting with the ‘hard’ technical and technology side of an integration project. Engaging with the ‘people factor’ was one of the most critical components of the integration of Michael W Halsall Solicitors into the Express fold.
“Internally, we kept the teams well prepared to support both staff and customers with any questions or issues by providing regular updates and frequently asked questions sheets to maintain consistent communication across the business.
“From previous smaller acquisitions, we’ve learned that consistency in communication is key to maintain confidence and achieve a seamless migration. A further key learning made during previous acquisitions is that it’s more important that the attention and efforts at this initial stage be focused rightly on the employees.
“Reassuring everyone from the very earliest opportunity that we had roles available for all and that we fully appreciate that it will take time to fully engage with a new working model was very important and was continuously communicated clearly throughout the process. Many of the staff had worked for MWHS for years. Having undertaken an audit in the early stage of integration, we were able to identify that whilst the MWHS team was undertaking some fantastic litigation, our detailed systems, procedures and adoption of new technology were quite different to their previous methods of working. The team would require time to adapt to our practices, learn our systems but there was clear advantage to be gained in facilitating the team reaching their full potential. This period can be unsettling for many but we quickly built confidence throughout the team by developing a roadmap of training and being on the ground to problem solve and assist with adaptation.
Confidence through training
“During the first few months comprehensive training and support was delivered through various internal teams including cost department, professional support development, compliance department and in-house barristers. Initially team training sessions were delivered on a daily basis and as things progressed, we continued with weekly training sessions with the whole team on various file handling topics. This proved to be a real turning point in the integration. The detailed and steady pace of the retraining process meant retention levels remained high and enthusiasm and dedication from the MWHS staff to get to grips with the systems and procedures were applaudable.
“A key learning at this point of the integration was recognising that the rate at which people can assimilate the knowledge and ways of working are very different and that people respond differently to various methods of training delivery. To help aid various learning styles required a wider team of support from within Express Solicitors, with senior experts on key topics all providing their time to assist with the training, rather than being solely reliant on one trainer and one style of delivery.
“Having the different Express Solicitors specialists visit MWHS, each with their own presentation and learning styles ensured a wide variety of training sessions were delivered and we quickly started to see the advantages of having talented new team members up to speed with our unique processes and systems.”
Adopting new processes and technology
The legal profession has seen exponential growth in technology over the last few years, a profession that was previously renowned for paper trail files and heavily reliant on ‘archaic’ methods of managing documents and business operations. Express has embraced digital and as a direct result brought on additional systems and procedures which sets it apart from other companies. Express Solicitors’ adoption of technology and process was all new for the incoming team at MWHS.
“There was a heavy emphasis on MS Teams and Case Management training, also the phone system required time to adopt as Express Solicitors use softphones, but MWHS were on traditional lines – so quite a pace of change for our new colleagues.
“Facilitating the migration of both IT and HR systems and all case load documentation was also a longer more detailed process, although deal speed is important it was imperative that a complete and comprehensive due diligence process was carried out.
“Integrating the 40 strong MWHS team and satellite office in Haydock has also meant a re-evaluation of some processes previously adopted by the existing team at Express Solicitors. We have also placed senior existing RTA Team Leaders at our Haydock Office throughout the week. We now have a new process of team meetings and ensure that these are now held remotely and inclusive of both offices. Members of the MWHS acquired team have also spent time in our Northenden Office.
Patience and empathy go along way
“From the HR point of view, integrating payroll systems is more complex and takes more time than you might expect. The key learning made in successfully merging payroll systems is to give yourself enough time to properly handle the key issues, communicate the changes well to the team members and produce a proper plan of action that can set the stage for an even better system after the deal is completed.
“MWHS staff were all invited to preserve their continuous employment and sign over to Express Solicitors contracts to enjoy greater benefits, and one which many gladly accepted. This approach did create one issue we hadn’t anticipated. Our payroll provider was hesitant in accepting the MWHS staff into our payroll with their continuous service dates. There was some pushback from our payroll provider, in particular about a staff member not being entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay or indeed our enhanced maternity pay because she was new to our payroll. We had to work hard to push back and get the corrections made so our new colleague (with over four years’ service) qualified for the right benefits under our terms and conditions.
Where are we now?
“Six months in I would say that by the conclusion of month three we were running fairly smoothly and now in a consolidation and reward phase. We are really starting to see the fruits of everyone’s combined labour both in terms of profit but also in the boost of the addition of the fantastic team members we have gained.
“The success in such a short period of time has been down to the sheer effort, time and dedication and the willingness and enthusiasm of the MWHS team to want to become part of a successful company. Placing people, process and patience at the heart of everything has really paid off.”