Mayvin Law firm mergers Cultural change The role of HR

Law firm mergers, cultural change and the role of HR

Here’s a challenge: what if we were to outlaw the cliché about HR and Organisation Development (OD) being ‘fluffy’? We’re starting to do more work with law firms, and so I was intrigued to read an article in The Lawyer, discussing the cultural costs of a mega-merger being negotiated between two firms of lawyers, Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) and Greenberg Traurig.

There are a number of things that struck me as interesting about this:

  1. The new managing partner of BLP, Lisa Mayhew, was thought to be the ‘steady as she goes’ candidate, and yet impressively she has initiated a seriously ambitious global expansion.
  2. Mayhew’s background is in employment law, not traditionally regarded the cool end of legal practice. And yet, it is a very fast-changing area of law that requires nerves of steel, as well as empathy to deal with multiple stakeholders at stressful times.
  3. The article talks about Mayhew’s interest in the ‘dynamics of the workplace, from team-building to communication and diversity’. The implication is that this is somehow striking.
  4. The fact that Mayhew is a woman is not mentioned as noteworthy, but it is hard (for me) not to make sense of the above through the lens of gender. Mayhew attempts to disassociate herself from ‘fluffy HR’; does this come from being a woman and as such always being associated with soft skills and areas of business?

 

Mayhew is quoted as follows:

“I have talked about how we will behave our way to a successful future. When I talk about behaviour and cultural [sic] I don’t mean it in a fluffy HR way, I mean it as an intrinsic part of high performance.”

I was struck, and rather saddened, that Mayhew felt the need to distance herself from HR by invoking the F word. Whatever else this is about, it says plenty about the politics of how HR is viewed and the irony is that while what Mayhew is describing is anything but ‘soft’, it is also, in my view, absolutely what good HR and OD work is all about.

Mayhew’s approach to the merger strikes me as wise. The article shows how she focuses on performance and metrics and, rather than falling into the trap of getting hooked by the details of the integration, she keeps her attention on the big ticket items – the external environment and context; strategy; leadership and culture. (These are what Warner Burke calls the ‘Transformational Factors’ – those things that have the biggest gravitational impact on an organisation.) There is some detailed discussion of the pay and reward system (what Burke would call a ‘Transactional Factor’), but it is also made clear that the reason this matters is because it is fundamental to culture.

Compare this to the approach to mergers we read about all too often, which can be summed up as: I. Make the merger decision as if all that matters is strategy and systems, forgetting that organisations are human systems II. Rush headlong into getting the integration done on an impossible timescale in order to minimise anxiety (whose?) III. Decide to ‘worry about the culture later’, forgetting that the culture is set by all the foregoing.

So what are we to make of this? Well, isn’t it interesting that it has taken a ‘steady as she goes’ CEO working an unspectacular part of the legal profession to undertake an ambitious global merger and to do it right, rather than give in to popular pressure or anxiety? I particularly like Mayhew’s notion of behaving your way to a successful future, of doing rather than just talking about.

Now, if we could just lay to rest the ghost of ‘Fluffy’.

Postscript

A few days after writing the above blog, I learned that the merger has been called off. There’s an article in The Lawyer about it here. Apparently Mayhew cited cultural and strategic differences as the reason, though others in the industry are saying this is an excuse. Surely, however, this is missing the point? If there is no cultural and no strategic fit any merger is doomed to fail. Sounds like a good move to me.