Why do law firms exist?

What is the point of a law firm?

This is neither a rhetorical nor a snarky question. I’m interested in nailing down the economic rationale for a law firm’s existence. What benefits flow to both clients and lawyers from law firms? In what ways are the buyers and sellers of legal services better off because a law firm is the platform of choice for their transactions (instead of, say, an individual lawyer-client exchange)?

A good way to answer that question, I think, is by reference to the work of 20th-century economist Ronald Coase, who (among other things) authored a pioneering treatise titled The Nature of The Firm. As The Economist observed in celebrating Coase’s 100th birthday last year, Coase asked and answered a similar question in the business world: why do companies exist? “His central insight,” The Economist wrote, “was that firms exist because going to the market all the time can impose heavy transaction costs. You need to hire workers, negotiate prices and enforce contracts, to name but three time-consuming activities. A firm is essentially a device for creating long-term contracts when short-term contracts are too bothersome.”

The magazine went on to point out that while important, reducing transaction friction is only a partial answer to the why of corporations: “[Companies] can marshal a wide range of resources — particularly nebulous ones such as ‘corporate culture’ and ‘collective knowledge’ — that markets cannot access. Companies can organize production and create knowledge in unique ways. They can also make long-term bets on innovations that will redefine markets rather than merely satisfy demand.”

Companies exist, therefore, because they:

  • reduce transaction costs,
  • build valuable culture,
  • organize production,
  • assemble collective knowledge, and
  • spur innovation.

So now let’s take a look at law firms. I don’t think it would be too huge a liberty to state that as a general rule, law firms:

  • develop relatively weak and fragmented cultures,
  • manage production and process indifferently,
  • assign and perform work inefficiently,
  • share knowledge haphazardly and grudgingly, and
  • display almost no interest in innovation.

That’s an inventory of defects that would make Ronald Coase wonder exactly what it is that keeps law firms together as commercial entities. And he’d be further daunted by the following considerations:

  • This week, Bruce MacEwen at Adam Smith Esq. wrote about the difficulty of “branding” a law firm: “Law firm partners are anything but designed or acculturated to delivering a ‘consistent experience’ or ‘a particular quality level.'” And in any event, he added, “what exactly is the [law firm brand] promise?” In many law firms, the client experience varies wildly from lawyer to lawyer, to such an extent that basic documentation and even invoices will differ from one partner to another. In that light, it’s difficult to say that a law firm has an “identity” or a “way of doing business.”
  • Last week, Mark Hermann at Above The Law, tackling the old question of whether clients hire lawyers or firms,  averred that “[i]f clients have any sense at all, they hire lawyers.” This is because firms are unsure of the quality of their own lawyers, and because hardly any firm systematically conducts internal quality assurance to review and approve its lawyers’ work. For the same reason, lawyers are reluctant to cross-sell “partners” whose expertise they don’t know or trust and to whom they won’t dare refer their prized clients.
  • Back in July 2010, Anthony Kearns wrote for The American Lawyer about the absence of risk assessment and post-mortem systems in law firms. These systems could reduce the chances that something will go wrong in the first place, and could create processes by which lessons can be learned from errors and the same mistakes avoided in future. But law firms are extremely culturally resistant to admitting that lawyers have failed in the past and will fail again — and as a result, there is no institutional expectation that errors be acknowledged and treated as learning opportunities.

These are not problems, it should be noted, that you can easily correct through the simple application of good management practices. These are problems bred deep in the bones of lawyer culture. Lawyers tend to protect and promote their own individual interests over that of the collective to which they belong. Many sensible management innovations that have tried to gain a foothold in law firms over the past couple of decades — including knowledge management, cross-selling, brand discipline, billing reform, associate apprenticeship, collaborative workflow, and so forth — have foundered on the shoals of lawyers’ reluctance to sacrifice some individual short-term good for some collective long-term gain. This isn’t a bug of law firms; it’s a feature.

So what does that leave? From the original list of Coaseian advantages, we still have the first and most important: the reduction of transaction costs. There’s no denying that this is an important and useful aspect of a law firm. While there are many legal tasks that can be accomplished fairly easily by a single lawyer working alone, there are many more that require more resources to accomplish: other lawyers, numerous staff, many knowledge assets, multiple connections and contacts, and so forth. A client with an even slightly complicated legal matter does not want to go out and contract individually with each of these players and suppliers; she wants a centralized platform, a one-stop shop. Lawyers, equally, don’t want to access the market every time they need an asset; they prefer to keep them all on hand.

And that, to make an over-long story short, is why I think the fragmenting of legal services and the rise of viable non-firm suppliers pose a threat to the continued existence of law firms. New competition and technology are lowering the transaction costs of complex legal work; they’re reducing the friction loss traditionally associated with repeatedly accessing the legal market. New resources such as legal process outsourcing companies, virtual law firms, temporary and contract lawyers, and sophisticated software programs are available, reliable, and increasingly accessible in a timely and cost-effective fashion. We used to lower the hassle and cost of accessing multiple legal resources by putting them all inside a law firm; we don’t need to do that anymore. The remaining fundamental rationale for law firms is under siege.

To be clear, I’m not forecasting an imminent worldwide cull of law firms; many firms are still better at cost-effective legal transaction facilitation than the vast but jumbled array of separate providers. But we’re about to see the rise of a new generation of effective legal resource organizers (which, when you think about it, is all law firms really are). They’ll organize disparate, far-flung, specialized suppliers of legal services into a complex, finely tuned, just-in-time assembly and delivery system for complex legal services — supply chain managers for the modern legal marketplace. And they’ll do it more affordably and with better quality controls that law firms can offer. Some firms might evolve to fill this role, but if they do, we’ll barely recognize them when compared to their ancestors. Legal information and systems companies like Thomson or Lexis might fit the bill; so might LPOs; so might completely new businesses financed through the Legal Services Act.

That’s why law firms need to understand their own economic purpose, what role they really serve in the market. If, as I’ve argued, it’s to be an effective organizer of legal resources, then they need to get much, much better at identifying, organizing, and efficiently managing those resources, inside and (especially) outside their walls. That’s the role — quarterback, manager, general contractor, call it what you like — that’s up for grabs right now, and it’s the only one that really matters. That’s the point of a law firm.

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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