Not wanted on the voyage

From the incumbent’s point of view, the only thing worse than a revolution that topples you is one that renders you irrelevant. You can mount a comeback from exile; you can’t mount a comeback from Nobody Cares. Law firms, pay close attention.

We’re now less than six months away from the implementation of the Alternative Business Structures (ABS) provisions of England & Wales’ Legal Services Act. This event has been forecast as law’s “Big Bang,” the equivalent of financial services deregulation in the UK in the 1980s, although I suspect this will be a long rumble of change rather than a sudden explosion. But as we get closer to October 6, signs are emerging that should be making British firms very uncomfortable and firms elsewhere in the world more than a little uneasy. It’s quite possible that the biggest change in legal marketplace history will pass law firms by.

The Legal Futures website reported last week that English and Welsh law firms are finally starting to take ABSs seriously and are becoming more amenable to external investment. The bad news: the investors may already have lost interest. “City solicitor Paul Harding, who heads ABS Advisory Partners, said he was ‘absolutely convinced’ that private equity firms were getting ‘cold feet’ because of the difficulties they foresaw from investing in partnerships. … Mr Harding said law firms do not really understand what an investor would require of them. ‘They’re thinking about creating capital value that they can buy and sell, and not looking any further than that. They’re in for a shock. If money is made available, they won’t like the terms.’”

Subsequently, at an ABS-themed conference sponsored by Legal Futures, Richard Susskind issued the same warning: most law firms will not be invited to this party. “Law firms hold few attractions to private equity investors because there is no obvious exit route and little profit, he said, predicting that external investment will be made exclusively in new forms of legal business: ‘These are the businesses that are growing; doubling, tripling, quadrupling every year. Of course they’re going to attract investment.'”

When you think about it, the idea that private equity will bypass law firms and roll straight into new business models makes perfect sense. As any managing partner will tell you, running a typical firm is a task that inspires mythic adjectives like Herculean or Sisyphean. Law firms resist corporate management the way cats resist baths. John Wallbillich at The Wired GC illustrates this perfectly by listing five reasons why law firms couldn’t adopt the Goldman Sachs model:

  1. They don’t hire the best and then invest in their development.
  2. They don’t honestly evaluate talent at all levels.
  3. They don’t make people leave who don’t perform.
  4. They don’t directly link pay with performance.
  5. They don’t accept downside risk for upside reward.

Savvy investors would balk at an operation that failed on one of these points; most law firms fail on all five. Why would investment firms take on the headache and heartache of trying to corral hundreds of independent lawyers who each insist on professional autonomy and consistently put their own interests ahead of the firm’s? Many law firm partners, if offered cash for an equity position in their firms, would likely take the money and run. Private investors are fully aware that six months after buying your average law firm, they’d be left with a logo, a lease, and an unfunded pension plan.

Much better, from the investment community’s point of view, to start from scratch. Finance a small greenfield firm where lawyers work efficiently, price by value and are committed to the cause. Alternatively, kick the tires on some of these virtual or distributed firms that deliver results without overhead and attitude. Better yet, never mind the lawyers: go find an LPO the way Thomson Reuters did, inject millions of dollars into its operations, and see what happens. Or throw your weight behind a document service company like LegalZoom or a small-firm franchisor like Quality Solicitors. In all these cases, investors will be looking for private companies that think and behave like private companies, not like country clubs with billable-hour targets.

The threat of irrelevance is not limited to either the UK or the ABS world: it represents a general marketplace shift away from the traditional providers of legal services and their bases. The Daily Business Review recently published an account of a conference where in-house counsel from Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard — not exactly lightweight clients — cheerfully described all the ways in which they were slicing millions of dollars off their annual legal spend.

But the Microsoft lawyer also threw in a statement that should make even the biggest and most “prestigious” firms shiver: “‘When I started,’ he said, ‘everything I did … all the regulatory work … was centered in Washington. Now the centers of power are Asia, Sao Paulo and Moscow. … All the complex legal issues these days are outside the United States.” In other words, complex legal issues — the ones that big firms pursue because they pay off so handsomely in money and prestige — are leaving the building. If you’re a US firm that stretches no farther than the continental 48, that’s a problem.

A year or so ago, I quoted a Seth Godin observation: “When the platform changes, the leaders change.” I think that process is now underway in the law: a shift in the marketplace environment that has a very good chance of deposing incumbents and producing brand new players. Twelve months from now, when the first ABS dollars start circulating through the system worldwide, we should start to see that shift manifest itself.

Law firms that want to survive this change could stand to do a lot of things, but they might be best advised to start with management. Specifically, they could junk a model where the owners manage the business, manage it according to their individual short-term interests, and treat the firm as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The global legal market is about to hand down a verdict on that model: it doesn’t deliver what we need. It’s irrelevant.

Jordan Furlong speaks to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.



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