The numbers are out. Jobs in the legal sector are down, and law firm mergers are up for the year. According to a new report issued by Altman Weil:

Third quarter deals are down from 26 last quarter, but, year to date, 2008 law firm combinations are outpacing 2007 by 58 to 44.

“The volatile economy may have a short-term negative impact on deal-making, causing some law firms to hunker down,” said Altman Weil principal Ward Bower. “But cash-strong, well-capitalized firms will use the economic challenges faced by others as an opportunity to grow market share through acquisition.”

“Times like these are great opportunities for amalgamators in any industry,” he added.

Before jumping on the law firm merger, acquisition or cherry picking band wagon, law firms need to review their firm culture and honestly ask themselves: will this marriage work?
Having worked in-house for more than 10 years, I assure you that mergers are seldom effective long-term. It is rare for a firm to fully integrate the new partner, practice or firm into their culture. Five, 10 or 20 years later, you will still hear attorneys referring to themselves as the “ACME” firm, the “Northern Virginia” office, or “Bill’s group.”
Years after a merger you will still find different offices using different billing and accounting systems. Old allegiances are hard to break. New relationships are hard to build. Resentments build as reality sets in, polarizing factions of the merger against one another. Check the headcount three, five or ten years later. Most of the “merged” attorneys are gone.
How often in recent press have we seen this reference in recent weeks? VLG Core Makes Move to Cooley. Read past the headline and take a look at the problem:

[The move to Cooley] also marks the end of the Venture Law Group, an independent law firm that clung to its culture, name and acorn logo even after being acquired by Heller in 2003. At Cooley, said firm CEO Joe Conroy, VLG won’t continue as a distinct brand.

“Our firm culture would not be consistent with a firm within a firm,” he said.

Mark Medearis, who co-founded VLG in 1993, said his team was ready to let go of that identity. “Obviously we have a lot of affection for all those things,” he said, “but we’ve learned a lot about the practice of law, and we’re really excited to be joining Cooley.”

VLG held onto its old culture and never integrated with Heller. How many other VLGs are out there? Do you have a VLG within your firm?

Before taking a bite out of the merger apple to form a new, better, or bigger firm, I’d make certain that you have fully integrated the partners, practices and offices you currently have.