The American Lawyer reports on a mistaken and dangerous belief pervading the current U.S. legal market: that it is consolidating as larger firms grow more quickly than the market by taking share from their smaller rivals. However, an in-depth analysis of Am Law data over the last 20 years reveals that in fact consolidation is not happening. Rather, worldwide revenue growth from larger firms expanding overseas has been mistaken for consolidation of market share.
In Am Law’s latest article, Debunking the Consolidation Myth, the authors argue that the mistaken perception of consolidation has driven firms to bulk up—by merging, acquiring and hiring laterally—to avoid being at a competitive disadvantage. Such moves are high-risk, disruptive distractions for leaders whose attention is better focused elsewhere. Despite the intense effort involved, they create no strategic advantage. Wise partner groups and firm leaders will see past the prevailing dogma and focus instead on optimizing the performance of organically growing businesses, (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
In a tightly argued analysis, the authors conclude that “Consolidation is not happening. The imperative for law firms to grow is groundless. Smaller firms that don’t expand internationally are not losing share; in fact, they’ve gained share through the Great Recession. The data could not be clearer. And yet we know that this simple truth will be ignored. Facts are an ineffective counterweight to long-held belief. It’s too bad. Running a U.S.-centered, organically growing law firm well is a strategy with enormous validity and tremendous potential for strong profit growth.”
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Legal industry professionals say prospects for their future legal business look bright, but cite pricing pressures and cybersecurity as the biggest challenges their firms face, according to a recent survey published on The American Lawyer. The survey, conducted by legal software company Aderant, indicated that law firm professionals have a rosy view of their potential business. More than half of the survey’s respondents—some 57 percent—reported that business was “better” or “much better” at their law firms than it was over the prior year.
Beyond the survey’s findings about law firms’ business optimism, Aderant also asked respondents to name the most significant challenges facing their firms. According to the survey, the top five challenges facing law firms included pricing pressure, cybersecurity, operational efficiency, technology adoption and competition. Among respondents polled from US firms, cybersecurity jumped from sixth place in this survey the previous year to tie for the top spot with pricing in 2018, (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
The survey also included questions about innovation and new technology. While innovation is a hot topic in the legal industry, Aderant reported that more than 70 percent of respondents said their firm does not have anyone on staff specifically dedicated to innovation. But that response changes as law firm size grows, according to the survey. Just shy of 56 percent of respondents from firms with more than 500 lawyers said their firm had a staff member focused on innovation and new technology issues, (as quoted in The American Lawyer).
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In the latest March 2018 issue, Chicago Lawyer published results from their 16th annual survey of Illinois’ largest law firms and spoke with managing partners at Chicago firms that have seen strong growth in recent years, including two of our clients Faegre Baker Daniels and Akerman.
Faegre Baker Daniels, for example, has proven that they have the right approach for Chicago growth, successfully growing their seven-attorney starter office to over 60 in just eight years. According to Chicago Lawyer’s latest survey results, Faegre Baker Daniels is the 58th largest firm in Illinois, up from 67th last year, and plans to have more than 100 lawyers in the Chicago office over the next few years. “We’re cognizant of the fact that the growth is primarily not going to come from our main markets, so we’re looking to grow in other markets,” notes Chicago managing partner, Rick Michaels. “There’s no limitation or desire to have a limited presence here. Our goal is to have [Chicago] be one of the growth vehicles for the firm as a whole.”
For Akerman, a mid-sized, full-service firm based out of Miami, growth has been a response to client demand. Chicago managing partner Scott Meyers discussed with the publication how client demand has continued to shape Akerman’s growth in Chicago, after firm headcount increased from eight to 51 lawyers since opening its doors in 2014. According to Chicago Lawyer’s recent survey, Akerman is the 67th largest firm in Illinois, up from 86th in 2017. “We did not come to Chicago just because we wanted to grow. We came to Chicago because our clients wanted us to be here. We have always worked backwards from ‘What do our clients need? What do our clients want? What do our clients expect us to be?’ rather than a strategy of ‘If we build it the clients will come,’” Meyers notes.
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Intellectual property boutique Brinks, Gilson, & Leone lost four litigation partners to Midwest-based Barnes & Thornburg last week, according to The American Lawyer. This follows the recent trend for IP boutiques, many of which have either been absorbed by larger firms or have also had an unusually large number of partners depart.
John Gabrielides, one of the four partners that moved to Barnes, explained that they felt “limited in the services we could offer to our clients” at Brinks Gilson, and that joining a full-service firm “gives us a lot more flexibility and latitude” (as reported by The American Lawyer).
Big law firms have always been pathologically conservative in updating their policies, but has this mentality begun to affect their overall profitability? The American Lawyer recently released an article investigating whether large firms’ aging partners, who often control a majority of the client base, habitually put their self-interests above the firm’s longevity—to the point that the partners’ “short-term gains could become the institution’s long-run catastrophe.”
The New York Times released a statistic in their Dealbook stating that nearly half (46 percent) of all managing partners are between 60 and 70 years old, with only 3 percent under age 50. And, according to The American Lawyer, these partners are hoarding their clients with an “eat what they kill” mentality–which, AmLaw argues, makes the eventual succession of new partners that much more difficult.
Interestingly enough, this problem does not go unnoticed at the big law firms. A 2011 survey by Altman Weil found that 47 percent of firm leaders identified the “retirement and succession of baby boom lawyers in their firms” as their greatest concern. Yet, in Altman Weil’s 2013 survey, “only 27 percent of managing partners reported that they had a formal succession planning process.”
The American Lawyer concludes that aging partners should work to “encourage long-term institutional stability,” through prioritizing client service, encouraging partner cooperation, helping partners prepare for their “second acts,” and encouraging them to sacrifice some self-interest for the long-term betterment of the firm.
However, while Big Law partners should certainly concerned be about the futures of both their firms and themselves, many big law firms are already feeling the heat from their stagnated approach. In 2013, a study of over $10 billion in client fee invoices by LexisNexis/Counsel Link found that mid-sized firms (termed “large enough” firms, of 201-500 lawyers) are quickly grabbing the market share from biggest firms (those with 750+ attorneys). In fact, the study found, while big law firms saw a drop in their market share from 2010 to 2013, ‘large enough’ firms successfully grew theirs from 18 to 22 percent.
So, while the biggest firms continue to turn a blind eye to future strategy, it’s safe to conclude that their mid-sized competitors are eagerly seizing the opportunity to thrive.
Firms are taking a more analytical approach to partner compensation, reports LegalTech News. While partner compensation has traditionally been calculated in a more subjective manner, experts from legal software producer Aderant posit that “analytical models should be the best practice for determining law firm compensation.”
Dan Ronesi of Aderant argues that although law firms have started utilizing profitability as a metric for the firm itself , many are still hesitant to use this approach to calculate partner compensation. Aderant cites perceived lack of access to data and inherent differences in profitability between practice areas as two potential challenges to the adoption.
LegalTech News further quotes Ronesi as advising to “locate the profit that one’s generated instead of the revenue that one’s generated,” since revenue, if increased inefficiently, does not necessarily lead to increased profitability.
Ronesi identifies three future trends in firm operations: using better technology to track these metrics, looking at the numbers more frequently to create new opportunities, and increased use of profitability in the compensation models (as quoted by LegalTech News).