The merger of two top-tier law firms will probably seem like stop-the-presses, page-one breaking news to their partners, associates, and in-house marketing and PR staffs. After all, it’s taken many months of consultations, negotiations, due diligence, and more negotiations to finally bring about the actual joining of the firms. But, in truth, mergers rarely make news today even in the legal media, much less at 10 pm on prime time television.
Just a couple of statistics show why. There were 25 law firm mergers in the United States during the first six months of 2003. That’s an average of almost one a week. If we add in European law firm mergers over the same period, the average jumps to one every 2½ business days. Nor has there been any palpable slowdown in merger activity since that period. Such volume assures a lack of even initial, much less sustained media interest.
Yet there are ways to highlight a merger and generate protracted marketing mileage -- but only if you’re willing and able to see beyond the event itself.
Law firm mergers, just like key additions to a practice group (or, for that matter, a major court victory or newsworthy transaction), are not isolated events. Wisely promoted, they are pretexts for an ongoing marketing campaign, the discrete elements of a larger marketing animal called a rollout. It’s this rollout that allows you to continually leverage the merger in the legal marketplace, and it does so by shifting the focus toward the substantive value that your firm can now provide specific client industries as a result of the merger.
In an effective rollout, however, you can’t just tell the world that, because of the merger with Smith & Jones, you have more lawyers providing, say, better IP services to the computer industry. You have to show the world that that is so; prove it by sharing IP expertise with legal service buyers in the computer industry or anyone else on your prospect list.
That sharing of expertise is, in turn, a direct and positive reflection on the original merger itself, an implicit reminder to the world that the marriage of the two firms was a successful one. After all, three months later, the world can see their lawyers strutting their stuff in trade journals and at conferences, or being quoted on the front page of the New York Times business section.
Phase One: The Announcement
But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves. The rollout is the mature phase of a step-by-step marketing process that begins with the announcement of the merger and then proceeds to more expansive, practice area-oriented, and issue-specific marketing. To maximize the rollout, you have to take each one of those steps as carefully and thoughtfully as possible.
The first step is the press release. As we’ve suggested, the world will not beat a path to your door just because you’ve sent out an announcement of the merger. The release, though, is a necessary formality and, as part of a larger marketing scheme, it should be done right in any event. A few tips on doing it right…
First, don’t puff. Typical releases focus on a profile of the firm and relevant partners, creating in effect a vanity piece that has no interest to anyone but the lawyers themselves. These news releases, if they’re noticed at all, are quickly forgotten by editors and reporters, no matter how famous the firm thinks it is or how much attention it feels it deserves.
Besides, fame is illusory. Greenfield-Belser Ltd., a brand research company, showed a list of leading law firms to 900 in-house counsel and asked them to identify those known for expertise in commercial litigation. The recognition factor was 4 percent at best. Even when a firm’s name may be recognizable, that does not mean it is also known for any specific services relevant to specific buyers.
Second, aim at a target. There is no value or meaning to a news release unless it explains the value and meaning of the merger for the clients. The message must be clear and unequivocal: "This merger is important because… Here’s what it means for you, our clients, and for our industry." Omit that message and you’ve lost a golden opportunity to start positioning the reconstituted firm. Pro forma though the press release may be, it can and should start sounding the substantive themes that will later comprise the rollout, when your focus shifts entirely to legal and business issues of concern to your clients.
Third, be as specific as possible. Explain the firm’s actions in a series of message points that precisely articulate value to clients: "This merger will create the largest law firm in the Northwest with a corporate practice geared to the business concerns of biotechnology growth companies throughout the region."
Finally, client testimonials work well in press releases if only because, again, they’re showing more than just telling. Testimonials may or may not impress reporters, but your most important audience includes companies just like the one that happens to be endorsing you in this publicly circulated document. Here too, the press release anticipates the rollout by subtly shifting the orientation, away from a presumption of media newsworthiness news, toward fixation on value for the buyer.
Phase Two: The Rollout
That focus on the buyer defines the rollout. It signals a new stage, beyond any claim on your part that the merger in and of itself has abiding interest. It is the stage where lawyers practicing in the merged firm must now define, and talk about, what really is of abiding interest.
When Pillsbury Madison & Sutro LLP merged with Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts LLP in 2001, the new firm, Pillsbury Winthrop LLP, went beyond a perfunctory press release with a published report, "Silicon Valley Meets Wall Street," that explained some of the thinking that drove the merger. New interactive dynamics were driving high tech and high finance, and requiring expanded legal sophistication and resources. The message resonated with the legal services buying public but the merger was, ostensibly, no longer the story. The high tech, high finance nexus was the story. The merger fed off that story.
To disseminate your story during the rollout -- be it high tech/high finance, the corporate needs of biotech companies, or statutory developments affecting energy companies or motorcycle designers or advertising agencies -- you need to research the local media well in advance. If the merging firms have numerous branch offices, you’ll need to get a handle on the local press in each city. If there are numerous signature practice groups encompassed by the merger, you’ll need to develop relationships with a proportionate number of trade editors and reporters.
The rollout is therefore all about permeating the marketplace with substantive demonstrations of expertise that reflect positively on the original merger. There is, finally, another way to market the merger on a protracted basis -- take it on the road. Here too the merger itself is never the main story, but it is all the more powerfully highlighted because of its direct relationship to that main story.
If your IP partners are marketing the merger by talking IP, if your biotech partners are marketing the merger by talking biotech, why can’t your firm’s managers market the merger by talking law firm management? The world may not be all that interested in your particular merger, but there is certainly great interest in, and ongoing discussion of, the cumulative effect of consolidation on the legal profession and its clients.
Your merger then becomes a positive example of this larger trend, especially when you have more than one spokesperson participating in the discussion and -- this is essential -- the spokespersons include representative lawyer-managers from both the original firms. By appearing together on the same dais, or as participants in the same roundtable, they simply show the world how well they’re getting on. (Here too, they’re showing and not telling.)
When Piper & Marbury LLP merged with Rudnick & Wolfe LLP in 1999, the managing partners of the two firms did just that. They went on the road for months -- and they did not neglect legal profession conferences where they could display obvious comity and like-mindedness for the benefit of their audiences, which included prospective laterals and referral sources as well as legal reporters.
First impressions mean a lot, but never more so than when they are reinforced in multiple contexts for multiple audiences.
Richard S. Levick, Esq., is President of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, DC, which has handled media for more than 150 law firms worldwide. He can be reached at (202) 973-1302 or email@example.com.
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