Breaking the big firm

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My strongest, greatest fear by far, if it’s not too soon to look to the “other side” of this financial system meltdown and general economic interregnum, is not that things in law-land will look overly different when we emerge, but that they won’t look different enough.

That observation comes from Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq., and I share his concern that false confidence will lead too many large firms to believe that everything’s going to be basically okay. For large firms, everything is emphatically not okay.  The past couple of weeks have delivered a series of examples that demonstrate one thing: the ways in which large law firms have operated over the past few decades are coming to an abrupt end.

First, consider this this Legalweek report that two major international firms, Mayer Brown and Reed Smith, are jumping onto the fixed-fees bandwagon. Mayer Brown is readying itself to offer fixed fees for all its transactional work, as well as to make more frequent use of abort agreements and success fees. Reed Smith, meanwhile, plans to use fixed or capped fees in its financial industry group, in its corporate and real estate practices, and for transactional work.

What brought about this sudden departure from the easy-and-profitable billable-hour system? The firms’ leaders cite client relationships first and foremost, which is nice to hear. But perhaps equally instructive are two other articles linked from that Legalweek story: 55 job cuts at Mayer Brown in March, Reed Smith hiring a restructuring consultant in July. Few firms undertake changes of this potential magnitude unless the outside pressures exerted on them have made things very uncomfortable. (It’s worth noting, as Jim Hassett’s webcast does, that these are not the first AmLaw 100 firms to  climb onboard this train.)

Even more revealing are the contents of a leaked strategy memo from O’Melveny & Myers that appeared on Above The Law. The firm plans to “adopt a single rate card by FY2012, with volume and ‘investment’ discounts and appropriate alternative fee arrangements … becoming the leader in providing high-end legal services on a fixed fee basis, reducing costs to clients and achieving superior economic performance through practice management oriented toward cost effective client service.” Especially noteworthy are plans to reduce associate leverage to as low as 2-1, a ratio that’s positively Canadian.

Fixed fees, if done right (a big if), are demonstrably better both for the client and the lawyer. The question is whether large firms constructed on billable-hour pyramids can really adapt their culture and systems to make such a monumental change. Many big firms still think the key to flat fees is to take the last ten bills issued for this kind of work, average them out, add 10% for contingency, and present the final figure with a flourish. Fixed-fee veterans in smaller firms are skeptical, to say the least. Here’s Valorem’s Patrick J. Lamb on these big firms’ moves:

The essential element of alternative fees that actually work is that they shift risk to law firms, meaning the value changes from leverage and body count to experience and fewer bodies.  More brain power, less body count.  So a goal of reducing leverage “in some practices” to “as low as” 2 to 1 will make anyone experienced with alternative fees laugh out loud.  O’Melveny might as well take out a full page advertisement saying it really won’t be changing a damn thing.

I’m prepared to give O’Melveny’s initiative the benefit of the doubt, actually — every journey has to start somewhere, and I want to encourage every green shoot of innovation I see. But man, is this a long journey — changing a law firm’s fee and billing structure is like re-engineering your DNA, and the best will in the world won’t make it any less difficult. And for every large firm that is finally acknowledging that the horse they’ve ridden for years has died, ten more are still clinging on to the saddle.

The O’Melveny memo states at one point: “In the very recent past, our business model, as a whole, has yielded disappointing financial and practice growth results. … [O]ur litigation clients are looking for rate and fee reductions, and we expect that mindset will continue into the next good economy and beyond.”  That understates the size of the challenge. It’s not just litigation clients — a lawyer at a large firm confirms to me that the pressure for lower and/or more predictable costs is intense and is coming from across the client spectrum. This is the new reality, and large firms will struggle to make the sort of fundamental changes needed to adapt.

Let’s look at another key element of law firm success: personnel. The results of a survey published in The American Lawyer are interesting, if not surprising: associates in large firms are measurably more unhappy than their counterparts in smaller firms. Not only that, but graduates of the “elite law schools,” from which so many big firms insist on drawing most of their recruits, are the unhappiest of all when compared to their colleagues from “less elite” schools. (It doesn’t help that, as Ron Fox points out, law schools of every rank tend to funnel their graduates towards large firms and away from opportunities to serve ordinary consumers in smaller practices.)

You can probably guess the advice that the study’s authors offer big firms as an antidote: recruit outside your usual law school boxes, and make life for your new lawyers a little less punitive. It’s advice unlikely to be accepted, says Aric Press, editor-in-chief of American Lawyer: “I fear that we will look back at the exuberant spree of the last few years as the high-water mark of nonelite law school hiring. … This leaves an opportunity for the firms wise enough to seek first-class talent no matter what brand is on a diploma.” But how many firms will risk the CYA comfort of consistently recruiting from “the best and the brightest,” let alone make substantive changes to the overall associate model?

The study’s authors note that big-firm attrition is particularly frequent among women and minorities. Underlining that concern is this account of an event celebrating Working Mother magazine’s 50 Best Firms for Women Lawyers. Many of last year’s winners didn’t make the cut this time — in part, perhaps, because despite wishful thinking to the contrary, leaner times at big firms have made it harder, not easier, for women to advance and succeed:

It’s optimistic to believe that most large law firms are rethinking the work/life balance equation during these hard times. Frankly, most firms today are focused on survival and on a need to bring in more business — they are not, it seems, focusing on the larger questions of the meaning of work and job satisfaction. From where we sit, covering women in the profession for almost a decade, we don’t see a revolution on the horizon.

So: profits are dropping fast, more firms are getting ready to change the basic business model, the young talent is alienated, and diversity has been back-burnered. But that’s not the worst of it for big law firms. Because all this time, solos, small firms and midsize operations keep picking up all the opportunities that the large firms keep dropping.

While big firms allow women to walk away, one small firm encourages its employees to bring their children to work — not to an on-site day-care, but into the office, all day long. While big firms burn through their young talent, innovative companies like DirectLaw offer new lawyers reduced pricing to start up a solo virtual law platform — with 90 days’ free tuition to Solo Practice University to boot. While big firms set up committees to consider fixed fees, small firms have long since figured it out and will even tell you, as Jay Shepherd does, how they set their prices. All the momentum in the legal services marketplace today favours small, adaptable, innovative, client-focused, value-oriented, business-savvy providers. Most large law firms answer to immobile, traditional, self-centered, profit-oriented, and business-challenged. It’s not hard to pick the winner here.

Every marketplace, even one as artificially stunted as legal services, operates according to the law of supply and demand. The demand is changing, irrevocably. The suppliers that change with it will survive; the ones who don’t, won’t. Some more large firms are waking up to this fact and doing their best to change — but I’m concerned that 2009 is simply too late to be starting the change process.

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2 Responses to “Breaking the big firm”

  1. Susan Cartier Liebel

    Powerful as always! Why is it people (biglaw) can’t see the forest for the trees? We live in such a ‘short term’ world when we plan for the future. The future isn’t a year or the ‘flavor of the month.’ It is a decade or two. It is long range thinkers, those who gather the global facts who can be said to ‘have a crystal ball’. It’s not lack of intelligence, it’s lack of true fact-gathering and incredible short-sightedness.

    But then, that leaves opportunities for those, like forward-thinking solos, to succeed.

  2. Carolyn Elefant

    While the profession celebrates flat fees (as do I), let’s not kid ourselves about which segment of the profession will shoulder the transition costs to this new business model: the young associates who spent years at big-law doing grunt work under the leveraged billable hour model and never acquired any real experience. Flat fees are a win-win for lawyers and clients when the lawyer can do the work efficiently either (a) due to experience or (b) through leveraging technology or (c) through both. Many young lawyers, particularly in the area of litigation, never had an opportunity to acquire these skills and will now find themselves displaced in this new era. What is even more outrageous is that the “grinder” partners who don’t carry their weight in generating business will, in the short run, benefit from this new model. Firms should have required grinders to build their own books or business or step aside to let younger lawyers through the ranks. Now, under a flat fee regime, grinders will be rewarded because they can do the work generated by rainmakers.

    The question for biglaw is how to provide training for the next generation. Flat fees are a great step forward, but at the same time, firms had better devise a way to help new lawyers get experience (and maybe that means that new lawyers work for close to nothing or maybe it means that big law does start hiring more solos and self-training lawyers) so that in future generations, there’ll be enough competent lawyers available to handle flat fee work.

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