Margaret W. Wong spends more time making deals in the courtroom than she does negotiating M&A transactions.
“With law firms, we’re really selling our brainpower,” says Wong, founder and managing partner of Margaret W. Wong & Associates LLC. “Most lawyers, they don’t like to be merge and they don’t like to be acquired. I have people who have approached me, but I’m very happy. I don’t think we’ll sell because I have so many people depending on us for their livelihood. We don’t represent the rich and powerful. We represent the common people.”
Wong started her firm in 1978 and it’s only since 2000 that she became more active in dealmaking. While her passion is to be in court representing her clients and fighting for what’s right, she has learned that there is value to be gained from M&A transactions, even in the legal world. One of her first entries into that realm proved to be quite rewarding.
Smart Business Dealmakers spoke with Wong about the deal she made with her godchild and her approach to making acquisitions.
How did the deal with your godchild come together?
My godchild, Margaret Chan, loved watching what I did, so she went to law school. In the 1990s, one of the most established Chinese lawyers in New York, Ben Gim, was selling his practice. He wanted me to buy it because I was an old friend of he and his wife. I couldn’t because my children were too young. So I introduced Margaret to him and I helped her write up a purchase and sale agreement and she bought the firm from Ben. In 2001, one of my senior partners left us and she flew to Cleveland to help me run my practice every Monday through Thursday. In 2006, I paid her back and helped her when she was running for judge in New York. I really wanted to help her because you can’t just leave clients high and dry. I thought, I’ll just go once a month just to clean things up for her. Slowly, I began to like them and they began to like us. She became a judge and I bought her firm.
What is your approach to more typical M&A activity?
Richard H. Drucker is an attorney who I’ve known since he was young. He would do a lot of cases that I don’t get to and I used to be very envious. He’s also a wonderful litigator and criminal lawyer. He thinks like a sole practitioner, not like a law firm or corporate America. I thought it would be nice to have someone who is highly competitive join us. When I talked to Richard, he said, ‘I don’t need this. I’m happy with what I’m doing.’ But I kept calling him and saying, ‘Let’s meet here.’ He knew that with our firm, he could mentor our younger lawyers and make an even bigger impact in the legal world.
I love conquering something. I love to say that I’m doing new stuff and meeting new horizons and new challenges instead of doing the same old same old. One of Richard’s frequent collaborators is another lawyer, Jonathan A. Bartell. He also does a lot of criminal and immigration work. When I met with Jonathan, Richard was on the side talking to him. Jonathan and Richard have been working for so long together. I knew Richard needed Jonathan to help him on his cases and together, they help us recruit people that they know in the litigation world. With them, our world is becoming bigger.
What are some common mistakes that occur during M&A activity amongst law firms?
One major mistake with both businesses and law firms is when they focus on revenue growth. Money is important because we need to pay our people and we need to market ourselves. But if you start up a professional firm, in the lawyer world, your job is to serve. We provide a service. You have to earn the trust of your clients. If you’re always thinking about money and about growing your revenue, you’ll fail. Money can get you to a certain level, but you need to have that mission mindset, that service mentality. The whole thing about being a lawyer is to win, but do it ethically. We all want to grow. But ultimately, it’s your mission that matters. Some companies, their mission is to treat employees well. That’s OK. Other companies, it’s to treat clients well. That’s OK. But you need to know what you want to do.
How to reach: Margaret W. Wong & Associates LLC, www.imwong.com