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‘Short-term pain, long-term gain’: Q&A with CMS UK managing partner Stephen Millar

On 1 May 2017, the largest legal merger in UK history went live as CMS Cameron McKenna, Nabarro and Olswang combined to form the 2,000-lawyer CMS UK. Managing partner Stephen Millar tells Marco Cillario about hurdles and opportunities of the tie-up.

LB: What have been the biggest challenges of combining and integrating three firms?

Stephen Millar, CMS UK managing partner: Looking at previous mergers, we knew this was about going through short-term pain for medium and long-term gain. Integration is a huge challenge when you have thousands of people and complex systems in place.

In the first ten weeks after the merger, lawyers were getting to know each other and going through a huge amount of change. We had to keep the organisation focused on the long-term vision while going through the day-to-day challenges. Things are not perfect yet, but we are in a much more integrated place.

The cultures of the three firms were not identical but similar. Partners want to be in business with each other. This is one of our strongest foundations for success.

LB: How will the merger help meet clients’ expectations?

SM: Clients say with a number of mergers they are not sure what the strategic rationale is, but with ours they got it immediately. They have access to an international platform and specialisms coming together from different firms – such as energy and financial services from CMS, technology from Olswang, real estate from Nabarro. We are seeing significant new work coming in.

LB: What are the core benchmarks for the merger over the next 18 months? How will you know if it’s going in the right direction?

SM: Clients are our priority, and there are different ways to measure our success with them: mainly winning new work and new panel appointments across different sectors.

Economic measures are crude but important. In these early months we are performing ahead of expectations. We want to promote more people to partner and make people feel they have a strong career path here. To do that, we have to win more work from clients.

LB: What are the main challenges that UK law firms face over the next few years and how is CMS UK equipped to address them?

SM: It is a very competitive market, that’s why we merged: so we have competitive advantage.

Brexit means more regulatory advice is required, companies need support to reorganise, sterling has devalued so companies are making greater investments into the UK. The London legal market is going to thrive in the future notwithstanding Brexit, and as we get more connected with other parts of the world new opportunities will arise.

You started as CMS’ UK managing partner in May 2016. How do you see your leadership style and how did it fit with the merger?

SM: I love looking at the big picture while taking care of the details and know I need to be schizophrenic about that. What I enjoy the most in my job is advancing the business.

What else are you hoping to achieve before the end of your mandate in 2020?

SM: One of the core points I stood on when elected was increasing our presence in London. That’s been achieved. Another aim is to expand into the US: that’s a long-term strategic objective and it’s a work in progress…