The American Lawyer reports that the U.S. law firm industry had another strong year in 2019 and revenues for 2020 are predicted to continue growing at a healthy rate, according to a new report from Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group and Hildebrandt Consulting. The report found that after a slow start to the year, firms progressively improved their financial performance, and are expected to grow revenues between 5.5% and 6.5% over the course of the full year.
As in other post-recession years, the primary driver of revenue growth was an increase in billing rates, rather than demand growth, the report revealed. During the first nine months of 2019, billing rates had the highest growth rate since before the recession, growing by an average of 4.7 percent. By contrast, demand grew far less than in 2018 at a rate of 0.9 percent. The most significant impact on revenue growth was the continued trend of a lengthening of the collection cycle, which was largely driven by clients delaying payment of their bills, the report revealed.
The report also identified an active lateral recruiting market as a key trend in 2019, combined with a majority of firms hoping to grow the size of their equity partnership in the coming years.“The success rate of laterals has improved. In the past, half the laterals weren’t really accretive to the firm,” explains Brad Hildebrandt, Chairman of Hildebrandt Consulting. “But firms have become much more cautious about who they’re hiring.”
The key reason for the better success rate is even greater rigor on the lateral hiring process, Hildebrandt argues. Firms are aligning hiring with their overall strategy, improving their due diligence, and working harder to integrate new partner hires. “This eagerness to add talent at the top of the leverage pyramid will likely continue, with 61% of leaders surveyed saying they aim to add equity partners in the next two years,” Hildebrandt adds.
“Looking ahead, we expect that the most successful firms will continue to expand and innovate—despite ongoing geopolitical and macroeconomic uncertainty and volatility, and a challenging talent market. For those firms, expansion will be closely aligned to the firm’s business strategy—more so than pursuing opportunistic growth,” Gretta Rusanow, Head of Advisory Services at Citi Private Bank concluded. “For many firms, the steps they are taking to do more with existing clients and broaden their client base, focus on growth practices, industries and regions, and introduce further efficiencies in the way they deliver legal services will go a long way to ensuring that 2020 is a successful year.”
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The U.S. legal industry climbed to 1,142,700 jobs last month, returning to last year’s highwater mark set in October, according to recent data released by The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics on Law360. Professional and business services, which includes the legal sector, showed stronger gains, adding 42,000 jobs last month, in line with the average monthly gains for those services over the past 12 months, the report said.
In addition, some other recent reports indicate that the legal industry as a whole is performing well financially. One report, released in late January by Wells Fargo Private Bank’s legal specialty group, in a check-in on 2018’s year-end results found the strongest annual performance among law firms in a decade, with firms reporting average revenue growth of 5.9 percent and average net income growth of 7.6 percent.
That was consistent with another report published in December by Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group and Hildebrandt Consulting, which found that last year was the U.S. legal industry’s best for financial growth in nearly 10 years, Law360 reports. According to the report, law firm revenues during the first nine months of 2018 grew by 6.3 percent on average, due to increases in billing rates and, to a lesser degree, demand growth.
The Citi report was generally optimistic about the industry’s outlook for 2019, predicting that law firms will become more adept at using technology, project management and alternative pricing to become more efficient. It also predicted an uptick in equity partner retirements, putting the onus on firms to invest more time and energy into client transitioning.
“We are optimistic about 2019 and do not anticipate a downturn in the industry. When the inevitable downturn does occur, the biggest expense management opportunity for firms will be to study whether the composition of their leverage models makes sense from a profitability standpoint,” Brad Hildebrandt, chairman of Hildebrandt Consulting, said in a statement at the time the report was released. “That said, experience tells us that law firms are typically quick to recover from economic downturns, so long as their internal fundamentals are sound,” (as quoted in Law360).
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