Are you a law firm owner looking to expand and take your firm to new heights? Or are you looking to merge with another firm as part of your retirement and succession plan?
In our latest episode of The Lawyer Millionaire Podcast, we sit down with Margaret Burke – founder of MB Law Consulting – to uncover the secrets of a successful law firm merger. If you’re eager to learn how to navigate the integration process, establish and maintain relationships, and grow your client base, this episode is a must-listen!
In this episode, Margaret Burke shares her expertise on law firm mergers and integration processes. She delves into the importance of practice theory and individual relationships, as well as the methods used to establish and maintain these relationships. From in-person meetings to PR marketing and business development, Margaret leaves no stone unturned when discussing the keys to a successful merger. She also emphasizes the value of communication in marketing and selling a law firm, as well as the challenges and strategies involved in integrating an acquired group into a new firm.
- The crucial role of relationships in the success of a law firm merger.
- Practical methods to establish and maintain strong connections with acquired firms.
- Key factors to consider during the integration process, such as technology, training, and culture.
- Strategies to effectively communicate the benefits of a merger to clients.
- Insights into selling a law firm and planning for succession.
Connect with Darren Wurz:
- 30 Minute Chat With Darren
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- The Lawyer Millionaire: The Complete Guide for Attorneys on Maximizing Wealth, Minimizing Taxes, and Retiring with Confidence by Darren Wurz
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Connect with Margaret:
About our guest:
Margaret Burke, President, and Founder of MB Law, has decades of experience consulting with lawyers, Partners, and small to midsize law firms. She specializes in managing operations, finance, HR, IT, and business development to improve law firm operations, streamline processes and scale revenue. She has advised and led acquisitions, relocations, succession planning, restructuring and start-ups. Prior to MB Law, she helped launch and build a startup providing consulting services to law firms. She also served as CEO and member of the Executive Committee at a Boston-based law firm.
Margaret earned her MBA at Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University. She is a CLM Certified Legal Manager, Yellow Belt Legal Lean Sigma, and Certified Professional Coach. She is the recipient of the Excellence in the Law in Firm Administration and Operations Honoree. She is a proud member of the ALA, Association of Legal Administrators, and a current member of the ALA’s Program’s Committee. Margaret is truly passionate about partnering with Law Firm leaders to help each practice achieve their goals. She loves a challenge and, as a lifelong learner, prioritizes her professional development to ensure she brings the best to her clients and their firms. When not working, she can be found cooking fun and funky vegan cuisine, mastering her latest kitchen gadget, taking a barre class, on a day trip or travelling internationally with her husband.
Darren Wurz [00:00:04]:
The time has come. You’ve created your succession plan. You’ve picked a successor or a firm to merge with, and the process has started. Now, how do you navigate the complexities of merging your firms? How exactly do you ensure a seamless transition mission? And how do you bring two different law firm cultures together? I’m Darren Wurz. Thanks for joining us today, and welcome to part five of our series on succession planning for law firm owners. Today, our focus is what happens after the sale and how do you make sure it’s successful? Joining us for this discussion is Margaret Burke, founder of MB Law Firm Consulting and a leading expert in this field. With her wealth of knowledge and experience, margaret has helped numerous law firms navigate the complex landscape of mergers, integrations, and succession planning. Welcome to the show, Margaret.
Margaret Burke [00:01:07]:
Thank you. I am so happy to be here.
Darren Wurz [00:01:10]:
I’m excited to learn all the cool stuff that you know and your insights. We’ve talked a lot in this series about the lead up, the planning, the getting ready, different types of succession plans, different strategies. And now we’re kind of in the phase of talking about how you make sure it’s successful and pulling it off. So before we get into all that, why don’t you share with us a little bit about your background and how you found yourself specializing in law firm consulting.
Margaret Burke [00:01:40]:
Sure. Yeah. Thanks for asking. So I have been working in and with law firms for more than 20 years in house at a law firm, two different firms. The last firm I was with, I served as the CEO, and I had the benefit and pleasure of helping launch the firm and really grow it. I was actually with that firm for many years and really was able to experience the lifecycle of a law firm. And when I was with my last firm, I saw a need in the legal community. And I think anybody that works at law firms, I believe, will shake their head in agreement that you will never find I shouldn’t say never you likely will not find anyone with spare time. That includes the professional staff, the attorneys, the bookkeeper. Everyone at a law firm tends to be extremely busy at all times. And as a result, law firms work towards hiring when they don’t always need to hire. So I saw a need to help fill in in those gaps at law firms to help free people up from being busy 60 hours a week and knowing that they have someone coming in to help them that understands the business of law firms.
Darren Wurz [00:03:03]:
Fantastic. So you really had an inside look at the mechanics of running a law firm and the business side of things that really helps you in your work now. And so I know you do law firm integration consulting. I’m curious. The other aspects of your business? What are some of the main areas that you help law firm owners and some of the big things you focus on?
Margaret Burke [00:03:27]:
Sure, I do a few things. I’ll bucket them in three different buckets. One is fractional COO. So I was alluding to this service actually a moment ago. That is where firms really want and deserve support with running the business. Running the business includes planning, execution, strategy, and the operations. But they don’t need someone full time, want someone full time or they can’t find someone full time within their budget. So I perform and work closely with firms as their fractional COO and a lot falls under that bucket. The other service I provide is strategic planning. It’s typically with a founder of a firm who is usually succession is always part of strategic planning and they want to grow. Growth means different things to different people. It typically always involves revenue, staffing and the services and their succession. Again, that comes up in almost every strategic plan engagement. And the third is what we’re talking about today is law firm integration. And this is a service that I would say is somewhat of a niche. Large firms tend to have a team of people that specialize and when there’s a group of attorneys in their team joining a firm, they usually have a team that will actually help make sure that it is successful. Small to mid sized firms usually do not have a team to do this. And the person that they have knighted as responsible is already busy with the 60 hours a week that I mentioned earlier. So that’s where I come in and I help with the integration. I call it day one, but ideally it definitely starts before day one and it is okay, everyone’s decided to get together. You’re almost like merging two families. You’re coming together now. It happens. And I help to ensure that the things that need to be addressed are addressed. I serve as a sounding board and I serve as a project manager and advisor to sort of address the things that will absolutely happen. There’s always issues and that’s okay. That’s part of the experience I share that I help get through them and ensure that the reason the two firms came together actually happens, which is usually growing the client base and a number of other reasons.
Darren Wurz [00:05:58]:
Absolutely. So the succession is a big piece of what you’re hearing that a lot. In your conversations with law firm owners, I’m curious, are there some things that you some patterns, some common obstacles, issues that law firm owners are dealing with other than succession itself? What are some of the recurring types of assistance that law firm owners need help with and why do you think that happens?
Margaret Burke [00:06:22]:
Sure. Yeah. So putting succession to the side, what comes up often, and this is incredibly common, is you will have a few attorneys who start a firm and they’re fortunate enough to be really successful quickly. And usually this happens with good attorneys that provide much needed services. They set up an infrastructure really quickly. Sometimes they’re leaving another firm, so it’s done very quickly because they leave that firm on Friday, they want to be up and running Monday. And fortunately, they have a client base. They’re busy, the firm continues to grow, and this can really happen within the first year or two, and it can happen quickly. And what happens is the firm client base and needs and complexities grow so quick that they don’t have the infrastructure to support it. That includes the operations technology, but also includes the team. And what is very often the case is there’s a few trusted individuals that were with the firm when they launched. And they’re incredibly important. And their roles keep growing and growing and growing. They’re asked to do things that they have never done before. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it can be incredibly stressful. Things start to fall through the cracks. Where I come in is to help with assessing the current situation and making recommendations to fill in the gaps that they have and to really relieve the person that has started to be the jack of all trades and to relieve the attorneys from actually spending a significant amount of their time on trying to manage the firm. So I see that a lot, and it’s incredibly common. And I actually had that experience with one of the firms I was with. So I lived it firsthand where the growth came so quickly that we had to really focus on the infrastructure to free up the founders. And now that I’m a consultant, it’s amazing how often I see that.
Darren Wurz [00:08:26]:
Yeah, I see that a lot.
Darren Wurz [00:08:27]:
And that makes a lot of sense. You have the law firm owner, the law firm founders wearing all the hats, doing a lot of the jobs that probably should be passed on. They haven’t created that infrastructure that they need to be able to do that. So let’s move into the succession planning part of things. And in your work with succession planning for law firm owners and integration, what are some of the trends or things that you’re seeing in the industry in recent years in regards to mergers and acquisitions? What are some of the emerging trends that you see and how you see the landscape changing?
Margaret Burke [00:09:06]:
Sure. So trends founders want to start planning. I think that years ago, founders didn’t really discuss it. It was something they were going to work forever and did not discuss the fact that they actually want to take some downtime, maybe enjoy their families more, travel, whatever their goals are. So I see that. I don’t want to say since COVID but it seems to me I’ve noticed since COVID there’s more of an open discussion about succession. There’s a lot of planning that is starting, and there is often the goal for someone at the firm, a trusted attorney that has been with a founder for a while. The founder really ideally would love that individual or individuals to take over the firm for them. And that is something that is usually the first choice. And as part of that, it’s the discussions around do these folks want to do that? Do they want to participate in some sort of financial component which is important and really vetting out like is this viable? And then planning for that event. And as part of that, there’s discussions on the backup plans. So that’s a common theme of discussions that comes up.
Darren Wurz [00:10:33]:
So important to have a backup plan.
Darren Wurz [00:10:36]:
I’m glad that you mentioned that and I’m glad that this is becoming more of a topic for people. I think it’s about time that this is more talked about, it’s more discussed. And so I’m glad that it’s becoming a more common thing and a more acceptable thing for law firm owners to start thinking and talking about. Now I want to know more about your process for helping law firm owners with planning for that succession and that integration piece specifically that really fascinates me. Could you walk us through some of the steps that you take in that process and what that process looks like?
Margaret Burke [00:11:13]:
Yeah, absolutely. I certainly can. And I do want to just quickly circle back to the discussion that we’re just finishing is often succession isn’t completely stopping the practice of law. It is often really reducing hours and serving as a consultant sometimes is the goal of the founding attorney. So I wanted to mention that because I do think that listeners may think, well, gee, I don’t want to stop practicing. I love what I do, I love my clients and that is a common reaction to succession and there are options related to that.
Darren Wurz [00:11:51]:
Thanks for bringing that up.
Darren Wurz [00:11:52]:
That is really important and you’re so right. It’s not about necessarily just bowing out from law completely. It can be setting up yourself to practice part time. Maybe you still want to work, but you don’t want to work as much. You want to enjoy more of your freedom and your flexibility and have some time to do other things and pursue other endeavors. So, great point. Yeah. So let’s get into the steps in your process. I want to know the integration. How do you bring two firms together when they decide that they want to merge?
Margaret Burke [00:12:24]:
Sure. So there’s a few things. One is there are many wonderful people, you’ve had some on your show who actually really specialize in making sure that there’s a high likelihood of success between two groups of attorneys. There’s culture fit, there’s practice area synergies, there’s making sure that the folks that come together have the same end result goals. And there are many specialists that will help with the actual almost matchmaking it’s matchmaking where I come in is there’s actually two points in the ideal situation? It is well before a founder starts to sell his or her firm and it is preparing for that day. And there are a number of things that are considered very valuable to an acquiring growing law firm. Obviously, a client base is important. Having the documentation to show that a client is either a long standing client that touches with that individual that touches with that person’s family. If it’s a type of law that is conducive to families business just making sure that there’s a record of interaction with clients and being able to show that a good CRM is a tool that firms can implement early on, in addition keeping their contacts updated so that when they do go to another firm, they can actually reach out to people and know that there’s a high likelihood that their announcement will reach the right people. And then there’s also the social value or the marketing value of a firm. So firms that have a really strong marketing presence, it’s a combination of social media, blog writing, thought leadership, Google reviews. Google reviews is incredibly important. Firms that start to think about those valuable assets before they decide to go to another firm are in a much better place when the time comes to maximize the value of their firm. Those are things that acquiring firms are looking at in addition to the things that I think we can all expect, which is revenue team. The team is very important so that’s the beforehand often folks will I’ll work with them, but they may not have planned ahead for a number of years and that’s fine. They’re a great firm and they have decided to join another firm. And I will come in and help to make sure that that integration is successful. I’ll work very hard at different components that law firms don’t always think about and it ranges from culture, technology, training and client integration. And I really work with clients. I call it a punch list, but it’s really an extensive list of different events, tasks, introductions, things that have to happen to ensure that the group that came in becomes part of the new firm. It doesn’t stop practicing as a solo silo, which can happen very often. And when I work with a firm, there will always be components where the acquiring group tends to do things a certain way. But there’s discussions of why things need to be a certain way and people are informed in real time that things are going well or there needs to be an adjustment.
Darren Wurz [00:16:10]:
Wow, there’s a lot to unpack.
Darren Wurz [00:16:11]:
There a punch list, events and things that need to take place to bring the two firms together. Could you give us maybe a couple of examples of what some of those things might look like?
Margaret Burke [00:16:23]:
Sure, yeah. It really ranges and we prioritize. One of the first things that really happens in an integration that can go wrong and there are always pain points in this area is technology and it’s an area that if you have an IT department, they’re not always thinking about the group coming in, needing to know how to use the technology. They are setting up the username and password and they’re assuming that the group knows what to do on day one. And quite often they really don’t have any idea and they also may not know what is expected of them. So there is a focus on training for the team, informing them beforehand the expectations of the acquirement firm, addressing any special needs. Sometimes you may have people on the team that are very valuable. You may have a valuable paralegal, for example, who’s an excellent paralegal, but is really not technology savvy, that individual needs training beforehand so that when they come in, they can start to be productive on day one. So we address technology needs, training needs. There’s a focus on culture and that’s really important because the sooner the two groups come together and get to know each other, we recommend lunches, after dinner, after work events, the more they get to know each other as people and are more apt to collaborate and help each other. So we focus on the culture, we focus on client lists. Getting the client list into the database of the acquiring firm is really important. Talking about and making sure that there’s a press release, that there’s proper messaging on the websites for the closing firm as well as the acquiring that LinkedIn is updated, BIOS are updated, pitches are taken. We do this beforehand. So it really is a combination of taking advantage of the opportunities, which is the marketing as well as proactively, addressing the things that will be challenges, which are time and billing time entry, people getting, making sure people are working with both teams are coming together to work together. So those are a few examples that are on the punch list. There’s very open discussion about what needs to happen in a particular week. And my role is very much to organize it, do it, work with the existing staff and then oversee it and make sure things happen.
Darren Wurz [00:18:54]:
Darren Wurz [00:19:10]:
Absolutely. Okay, so those are some great things on that list. Technology, I hadn’t thought about that specifically, but that makes a lot of sense. Maybe the two firms are using different CRM systems, different client relationship management software, and you have to try to bring those together. There’s a lot there that is a big task, it seems like.
Margaret Burke [00:19:34]:
Yeah, and I’ll note actually really the time and billing system, it can delay billing very quickly if people don’t know how to use it and they’re not entering their time and it can snowball quickly. So those are the things that we will address before the merger or acquisition to mitigate what will happen, which is delays in folks knowing how to use the software and being effective.
Darren Wurz [00:20:05]:
The key there, of course, is making sure you’re using it and using it effectively and making sure you have one. And those are some of the things you help law firms put in place as they’re getting ready for that sale. So there’s a lot of work there’s. Work on the front end, work on the post sale. As we’ve talked on the show before, it’s a long process and there’s a lot that goes into it throughout that process. You mentioned a few of the challenges.
Darren Wurz [00:20:33]:
I’m curious, what are some of the big challenges that you have run into before, some of the big difficulties in that succession planning process and how do you deal with those.
Margaret Burke [00:20:42]:
On integration or succession or both tied together?
Darren Wurz [00:20:49]:
Sort of both.
Margaret Burke [00:20:55]:
Yeah, I’d say it makes sense. It’s a human component. So you have an attorney, attorney’s, attorney who has been practicing independently, decision maker for many years, and now they’re suddenly joining a firm. Thankfully, it was a good match. They’ve had a lot of conversations. That process can take a while, so they know each other. But day one, when something happens and the person that was acquired, the founder, is asked to do something that he or she doesn’t agree with or just says, what, this is not how I’ve always done it. Those are things that really come up all the time. It’s expected. It’s like two families coming together. And that’s really a part that I ensure that the founder that was acquired knows that their concerns are being addressed and then that there’s really transparent conversations about what can be adjusted and what can’t be adjusted. So to answer your question, I would say really very quickly there’s the people part that presents itself as a challenge that just needs to be addressed right away.
Darren Wurz [00:22:08]:
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
Darren Wurz [00:22:10]:
I was going to ask you, you talked a lot about culture there. What happens when you run into sticking points when people aren’t getting along? Have you run into that before? What do you do to try to get past some of those roadblocks?
Margaret Burke [00:22:27]:
Yes, it happens. It actually happens at most companies. It absolutely happens at law firms. I think the reason I say it absolutely happens at law firms is because people are under pressure. And when we’re under pressure, we’re not always as patient with other people. And that’s a really big part of starting with making sure that people get to know each other personally. Personally, as in professionally, personally, group wine tasting, group event. Because when you like someone and know them, you’re more apt to be more patient and to help them. So on the attorney side, it will depend on the infrastructure at the firm. Absolutely. The manager, partner, HR would be informed, we would come up with a game plan to address it’s usually often on the administrative staff side where they weren’t informed that they have a new role at the firm or that something that they’re currently doing is going to someone else. So that’s where communication comes into play. And just being really direct with people and explaining, empathizing, understanding that this is a big change for people, but understand that there is a reason that this happened, that changes will be part of the transition. And similar to anytime this conflict is acknowledging, addressing, and being clear and making a decision, the teams do, ultimately it’ll be important that they do follow the decisions that are made on behalf of the acquirement firm.
Darren Wurz [00:23:54]:
That makes sense.
Darren Wurz [00:24:19]:
Okay, so you were talking about the client lists, and you mentioned that as part of the integration process. That’s a big piece, and that’s probably one of the biggest things people are worried about, is making sure that the clients are retained through that process. What are some of the strategies you use or how do you help to ensure a smooth transition of client relationships during the succession process?
Margaret Burke [00:24:46]:
Yeah, so the answer will always depend on the practice theory. But in general, the relationship individual at the acquired firm will be part of that process. And it can be a range of meeting people in person. Lunches, introductions, coffees, zoom meetings, there’s mailings, there’s information that went out to these folks beforehand promoting how the merger is going to help them as a client. It’s very much a PR marketing, BD exercise. And where I come in on that is when I make recommendations, I also track it and we hold each other accountable. And that’s part of we have, in the beginning, a weekly meeting. It’s typically the founder, manager, partner of the acquiring firm. It’s the founders of the firm that was acquired. And we talk about the priority clients and what needs to happen. And we make sure and we do it in increments because there’s just so much you could do in a week. And we come up with the most time effective way to make sure that every client has been informed, they understand why this event took place. We gear it towards how it’s going to be better for that individual or company. And it’s an ongoing process. It does take a few months, but it actually starts before the merger.
Darren Wurz [00:26:14]:
Darren Wurz [00:26:14]:
Yeah. I guess the key here is communication and communication and communication. And I like that you use the word PR because that’s exactly what I was thinking. Publicity. This is marketing. You’re marketing to your client list to make sure that they understand that they feel this is of value to them, to stick around. And that is one of the biggest things I run into is you can’t sell client relationships, right? So how do you sell a law firm? Well, you can. You just have to work with somebody like yourself and make sure that that’s a transition process that clients are comfortable with and try to get them to stick around with the new firm post transition. Another big thing I’m curious about because you might have great CRM, you might have great client files, but not all the information is necessarily in those files. There’s a lot that’s up here, there’s a lot that’s in the head. That’s knowledge that the current lawyers have that are working on cases and things. How do you help with that knowledge transfer between the outgoing and incoming leaders? What are some keys you have there in that process?
Margaret Burke [00:27:30]:
Sure, I’m laughing because I can tell you work with law firms, a lot of it is in the head of the attorneys and that’s part of the ongoing communication I reference that we typically will have, I say weekly just so people get an understanding what I mean. But there is the prioritization of the clients. Then there’s a knowledge transfer that takes place at those meetings and it can range from gee, this is a really good client but XYZ and that is recorded for the acquiring firm’s use. And then there’s a plan in place to make those introductions. So there’s a few approaches. Is that blanket PR marketing letters, promoting and explaining the reason for the change. And then there’s the more detailed one on one where it involves knowledge sharing, transferring information and that happens in stages at the meetings that I conduct with the firms that I work with.
Darren Wurz [00:28:31]:
Darren Wurz [00:28:32]:
Yeah, a lot of meetings, a lot of working, communicating, talking, sharing valuable information, that’s all great stuff. Now as we’re wrapping up here, I’m curious if there’s anything else you’d like to add, any other additional valuable insights or lessons that you have for law firm owners as they’re thinking about this.
Margaret Burke [00:28:51]:
Sure, yeah, I will say I keep using the word meeting which I know for some of us we’re like oh my goodness, not another meeting. But it’s efficient. So my role is to ensure that the meetings are action focused. There’s takeaways after the meeting and it actually helps save time later on. So the more things that are discussed proactively and planned for, the less emails start floating around the firm a few months later with questions. So I do want to note that and I think that it’s important to know that things don’t need to happen overnight. But prioritizing and addressing the priorities first is important and things don’t need to be perfect, but they tend to go very integrations tend to go very smoothly when there is ongoing communication and action taken on a regular basis over a period of a few months. And then the last point I’ll make is there are so many opportunities for attorneys to find value in their firms. They know the value, they know they have amazing clients. They know that they have an amazing team. And I believe that sometimes there’s the misconception that there aren’t options, and there really are. And the integration is one option that is available to attorneys. And there are so many people like Darren and myself and others that can really help you through this process. So know that there are options.
Darren Wurz [00:30:24]:
Darren Wurz [00:30:25]:
Well, we’re coming to the end of our time. You know, we talk a lot about retirement and succession planning here. So I’m curious what the future holds for MB Law Firm Consulting. What are some of your future goals and what would be your dream retirement?
Darren Wurz [00:30:41]:
What would it look like?
Margaret Burke [00:30:42]:
That’s awesome. No one has ever asked me that. So for MB Law Consulting, my goals are this is going to sound a little scripted, but it’s not because I didn’t know you were going to ask this. I love working with my clients. I have wonderful clients. And my goals are to continue to provide the much needed support that the firms I work with need. My goals are growing my team. I’ve recently grown over the past few months to bring on an administrative professional in two team members. I actually have someone I work with that specializes in law firm workflows. And that is like a little bit of a niche that is so needed for law firms. And so I’m growing my team from understanding where firms need specialized help. So I would say my plan within the next three years is to continue to grow very strategically, to continue to provide very high level service. As for retirement, I don’t have retirement plans right now. I’m fortunate enough to have my own company. I can work where I want. I have been able to work internationally a few times, which has been a pleasure. So my plans are to continue as I am right now and revisit that in a few years. Darren, maybe I need to speak to you. Maybe you can help me come up with a game plan.
Darren Wurz [00:32:16]:
Well, yeah, that’s perfectly fine. And that’s one of the great things about being a business owner, is maybe it isn’t retiring completely. Maybe it is continuing to work in some fashion. I always kind of thought I would run my business from a beach on a laptop know? But who know? It can be whatever you want it to be. And that’s the beautiful thing about so great. Well, Margaret, why don’t you share with our audience how they can learn more about you and get in touch with you if they want to?
Margaret Burke [00:32:51]:
Sure. Yeah. So my website is MB law consulting. That’s Mblawconsulting.com. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And then feel free to reach out that way or call me. My business number is 617-702-0529.
Darren Wurz [00:33:15]:
Darren Wurz [00:33:16]:
Thank you so much for joining us today on The Lawyer Millionaire. We appreciate you tuning in and being a part of our financial journey. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you never miss an episode packed with useful financial advice and expertise for law firm owners. We also invite you to leave a review and share The Lawyer Millionaire with your friends and colleagues who might benefit from our discussions. Together, let’s empower more law firm owners to achieve even greater levels of financial success. If you want to learn more about how you can take your financial planning to the next level, check out our website thelawyermillionaire.com. There you can find free resources and webinars. Schedule a one on one with me and get a copy of my book, The Lawyers Millionaire. I’m your host, Darren Wurz. Until next time. Remember that at The Lawyer Millionaire, we believe in you and your financial potential. Keep growing, keep learning, keep thriving. Thank you for being a part of our community.