The rise of the super-boutique

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Yesterday, I advanced the notion that lawyers’ profitability now depends on what they do and how they do it. One reason is disruptive internet-based providers that not only are grabbing commodity work and profiting from it, but more dangerously, are also changing the values clients associate with “good legal service” to emphasize speed, affordability and convenience, threatening to replace firms as platforms of choice for many legal services. Today, I’d like to look at parallel developments within the legal profession that further illustrate this point.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the stratified legal market and its implications, and more recently, for The Lawyers Weekly, I described the consequent need for law firms to do what they do best and outsource the rest. With a hat tip to John Wallbillich’s fee pyramid, I’ve put together the following rough approximation of what the market for legal services now looks like (click to enlarge):

So you have bet-the-company work at the top, ordinary course of business legal tasks in the middle, and low-value commodity work at the bottom (the stratified legal market post explores these tiers in more detail). The top tier is now shrinking — it’s probably on its way down to 10% of the total market — and the bottom layer is growing, soon to encompass about half of what clients need.

Clients enjoy seeing their legal needs settle into segments with different price points, but they still find most lawyers and law firms frustratingly amorphous and undifferentiated, both individually and collectively, in terms of skills, methods and attitudes. They sure would like to see the legal profession recognize and respond to the realities illustrated by this pyramid.

That’s why the news last week from CMS Cameron McKenna looks so significant. The London-based global firm announced that it was essentially outsourcing its entire immigration law department to an equally global but fully specialized immigration law firm, Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen and Loewy. Understand, Camerons isn’t sending some low-value aspects of immigration work to Fragomen — they’re sending everything, lawyers and all. Camerons will no longer provide immigration law services within its offices — but it will still provide those services to its clients, using Fragomen as its preferred supplier.

This, I need hardly tell you, is something new. It’s so new that we don’t have a verb for what Camerons has done. The Lawyer uses “divests” and “offloads,” LegalWeek uses “transfers” and “spins off,” Fragomen uses “acquires” and I used “outsourced,” but none of these really seems to fit. Fragomen is now a little bit Camerons, and Camerons is now a little bit Fragomen; they’ll always be separate entities but they’ll always be joined. We probably need a term borrowed not from business, but from biology.

John Wallbillich, again on the case, wonders if this is the end of the full-service law firm, and he may be right. But at the very least, it’s a major mutation in the full-service firm’s evolution. Camerons hasn’t abandoned immigration law altogether; it has simply recognized that immigration work was neither strategically nor financially significant enough to remain a core activity of the firm, yet was still important to the firm’s key clients. You solve a problem like that by figuring out what you do best and outsourcing the rest, which is exactly what Camerons did here. It’s closest to the Wave system pioneered by Lovells (as it then was), but a Wave circulates work from a major urban firm through smaller regional providers and back again; this is a different animal.

What we may be seeing, in addition to the evolution of the full-service firm, is the rise of the super-boutique. Fragomen, as Ron Friedmann explains, is a walking illustration of what he calls Law Factory principles:

  • Focus on a single practice: with 250 lawyers, it is much bigger than its next biggest immigration firm competitor at 35 lawyers.
  • Handle high volumes: it has handled 50,000 immigration transactions annually for 3 years.
  • Keep overhead low: its offices are not fancy (and until a then-recent move, the offices sounded pretty shabby).
  • Leverage non-lawyer professionals: the firm has more than 500 paralegals, putting the ratio to lawyers at more than 2:1.
  • Work on fixed fees: 95% of its work is charged on a flat-fee basis.
  • Take legal technology seriously: the firm has provided web-access to case files for more than 10 years; its paralegals have access to a digital best practices library of key flowcharts.
  • Keep lawyer pay in check: new associates earn $125k, not $160k and do not come from top-tier schools.
  • Be global: the factory is global with 15% of work outside the USA.

You know what leaps out at me from that list? Fixed-fee work is ninety-five percent of Fragomen’s business. You can charge fixed fees when you only practise one type of law and come to know the area intimately; you have to charge fixed fees when your margins are so thin that you need to know exactly how much it costs you to carry out a given task. That’s the world Fragomen lives in, and it has adapted itself accordingly. It’s a world foreign to most law firms, who like to do everything and charge it all at cost-plus. But it’s a world that’s growing.

Take a look at the insurance defence bar, at least in the UK (which, thanks almost entirely to the Legal Services Act, is now the world’s legal laboratory). This article in The Lawyer describes the rise of insurance defence mega-firms, most recently highlighted by Clyde & Co.’s merger with (acquisition of) Barlow Lyde & Gilbert to produce a firm with 280 partners and revenue just south of half a billion dollars. Think about that for a second: $500 million a year largely from insurance defence work, possibly the least remunerative and most demanding corporate legal practice area in existence. And that merger simply lets the new firm tackle rivals that are about to grow in a hurry: Irwin Mitchell (soon to convert to an ABS), Parabis Law and Minster Law (both with aspirations in that area). Says The Lawyer:

This change is being ­driven by savvy in-house counsel,?who?can see ­financial savings to be made from their service providers. … Clydes chief executive Peter Hasson said the ­merger was driven in part by the anticipated reduction in panel places for global insurers. “The insurance industry is consolidating suppliers on a global basis. The UK insurance industry is much more international. Our clients are saying, ’We’ve just opened in Canada – we want you there’,” he said. [And so Clydes is, recently acquiring Montreal-based Nicholl Paskell-Mede to become the second global firm to enter Canada.] …

The insurance legal ­market is changing the way legal services are being delivered. This is a change that is being driven by the volume markets squeezing profit margins and forcing their peers to play a different game. Consolidation can only continue in this sector for a limited time before it starts to seep into other key legal areas.

And so it will. Take a look at Littler Mendelson, 71st in the 2011 AmLaw 100 with 750 lawyers in 50 offices across the US and annual revenue of $381 million, and the only thing it does is labour and employment law. Like other super-boutiques, Littler is a sharp, savvy firm that knows how to maximize the value of its investments. Just as an example, read this description of Littler’s CaseSmart system, nominated for an InnovAction Award this year:

“[It] streamlines the way that cases are managed and provides attorneys with a ‘smart system’ designed to anticipate their needs as they investigate facts, conduct research, prepare responsive documentation and perform their legal and risk analyses. The system also provides clients transparent, online access to information about the status of their individual legal matters, as well as key performance indicators regarding the overall work being performed in this system.”

How many full-service law firms do you suppose create and support something like this? Not many. Yet firms like Littler, Clydes and Fragomen make investments like these, because they’re responding to the realities of a legal marketplace that demands better and more cost-effective ways of producing legal work. That’s why Camerons’ move is so significant: it has created a visceral and structured relationship with a super-boutique, increasing its effective reach and capacity while simultaneously reducing its size and spend. That’s a pretty neat trick, one that other firms may find hard to duplicate.

So we come back to the theme at the start of this post: how do lawyers and law firms ensure their profitability in this environment? That’s going to take more space and time than I have right now, so it looks like this series will have to stretch to Part 3 next week.

But I want to emphasize the trend that seems to me undeniable: as commodity work grows in volume, more law firms are stepping up to take that work and profit from it through a relentless focus on volume, specialization and systematization. Go back to the pyramid: these firms are eventually going to dominate that third tier of client work (or at least, that percentage of the work that doesn’t leave the legal profession altogether). The first tier, mission-critical work, is shrinking, and the very top law firms have already locked in on it.

What’s left for the vast majority of non-specialist law firms? What do they get? In my opinion, they get an existential crisis. More on that next week.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations 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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One Response to “The rise of the super-boutique”

  1. Dan

    Great post. I completely agree. Funny thing is that I have been saying the same thing for at least a decade, but using different words for the three tiers. I call Tier 1, Niche work, Tier 2, bread and butter work and Tier 3, s–t work. I am always preaching to my firm that we always focus on getting the niche work on which we focus, we accept the bread and butter work if it happens to come in (assuming we are qualified to do it) and we refer out the s–t work.

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