The year of living dangerously

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So there goes 2011, and from a legal marketplace perspective, you could probably call it the year of hanging on. Large law firms hung on in the face of flat-lined or diminishing revenues, in no small part through the wonders of de-equitization. Small law firms hung on despite an expanding sea of legal service providers targeting the consumer market. Corporate law departments hung on despite seeing their outside counsel budgets cut by as much as 25%, yet still managed not to force change in the market. Law schools hung on in the teeth of a growing storm of criticism that they had failed to look out for their students’ financial interests. Measured in terms of endurance and tenacity, at any rate, it was a pretty good year for the incumbents.

Now here comes 2012, and from where I’m standing, it looks like a year in which the limits of perseverance will be reached and breached. There are just too many places within the traditional legal community where resistance to change will weaken and ultimately collapse. I want to point out three in particular that strike me as especially noteworthy harbingers of some new realities.

Disappearing law firms: Mergers and acquisitions of law firms picked up pace in 2011, but here in December came word of some interesting variations on the theme. Bryan Cave “merged” with Denver-based Holme Roberts & Owen, while Arnold & Porter “merged” with San Francisco’s Howard Rice. I put “merged” in quotes because it’s a polite fiction to pretend that these were anything other than flat-out acquisitions of law firms that were experiencing serious pain. Holme Roberts suffered a string of partner defections and staff layoffs earlier this year, while Howard Rice had lost nearly half its complement of lawyers in the last nine years, including two senior partners in 2009.

You can expect to see a lot more of these kinds of deals in 2012, because a lot of firms are having a very tough time adjusting to the new rules of the market. Some firms, as I noted in a post last month, don’t even make it to the acquisition stage: they simply disappear. This AmLaw Daily article makes it even clearer that dissolutions of law firms took place throughout 2011, starting with Howrey LLP and continuing with smaller and midsize firms throughout the year. You can call it “consolidation” if you like, but it also bears a strong resemblance to a profession-wide culling of the herd. Many law firms are weaker than they appear from the outside, or even from the inside, depending on how transparent their internal financial disclosures turn out to be. Some bigger dominoes could start falling early in 2012.

The rise of Asia: It remains something of a puzzle to me that the merger of China’s King & Wood and Australia’s Mallesons hasn’t set alarm bells ringing across the global legal marketplace. Now the largest law firm based in the Asia-Pacific region, with more than 1,800 lawyers, King & Wood Mallesons is something we’ve never seen before. Put it this way: Mallesons was one of Australia’s biggest and most esteemed law firms, large enough to entertain lengthy merger talks with Clifford Chance and innovative enough to be the only two-time winner of the College of Law Practice Management’s InnovAction Awards. Yet which firm wound up with top billing? That should tell you something about how much influence Chinese law firms are set to wield.

Will King & Wood Mallesons be able to crack the rich Anglo-American legal market? I’m not sure that’s on their radar right now. There’s more than enough work in Asia and Oceania to keep them busy, and frankly, it would be understandable if they think that their corner of the world has more medium-term upside than the western corner. But other Chinese firms are quite happy to go west: in fact, the two biggest law firms in China, Dacheng and Yingke, are preparing to open bases in London. Then there’s small Chinese firm Broad & Bright, in merger discussions of its own with none other than Clifford Chance. Years from now, we’ll look back on 2011 as the year China began breaking into the global legal market.

Alternative Business Structures: And heeeere we go. Starting the first week of January, the UK’s Solicitors Regulation Authority will officially throw open the doors to applicants of all stripes that want to become Alternative Business Structures under the long-anticipated provisions of the Legal Services Act. Regular readers will know that the SRA expects at least a dozen applicants straight away, and that the initial group will include law firms, claims management companies, major retailers, accounting firms, loss adjusters,  private equity houses, legal expense insurers, banks, will-writing companies, and even, remarkably enough, in-house law departments. I don’t know about you, but that looks like a revolution to me.

It’s a revolution that won’t stop at the English Channel or the North Sea, either. There are too many UK companies and law firms with offices worldwide to believe that the contagion can be contained. We’ve already seen the influence of the Legal Services Act in the ABA’s planned endorsement of limited, lawyer-controlled multi-disciplinary partnerships (although the degree of innovation here is comparatively tiny) and the lawsuit launched by Jacoby & Meyers to the restrictions against non-lawyer ownership of firms. Whether these initiatives succeed is almost beside the point: even the specter of massive change in the UK is enough to drive limited reform efforts. What kind of response will the real thing generate?

Those are three reasons to think that 2012 will be the year that the pressure relentlessly building on the fault lines of the traditional legal marketplace will finally produce the quakes we’ve been expecting for a while. And here’s one more: macro-economic and geopolitical events will play a role in the legal market as well. Europe’s financial situation is unsustainable, and the odds of something truly ugly taking place there and spreading worldwide seem to increase every month. The 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse and the resulting western financial crisis was the first shock to hit the legal system and generated a tidal wave of change. The next one could be bigger.

If you like living dangerously, then by all means, plan for 2012 to be another year of raising rates, de-equitizing partners, downsizing staff and taking whatever other measures you feel will continue to prop up the artificial and increasingly archaic metric of profits per partner. Keep on doing what you’ve been doing lately, just more of it. You might yet manage quite well, if your financial position entering the year was rock solid,  your firm culture intensely positive and your relationships with clients extremely sound. But if you feel like your foundation is a little shaky, your strategic direction has meandered, or your morale is brittle, then I think you’d be well advised to pay close attention to what comes next. We were warned.

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 year of living dangerously”

  1. Susan Cartier Liebel

    This piece evokes images of the raw footage of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake/tsunami with people on the beach watching it happening but not being able to digest what was coming…and running for cover too late.

    Thanks for another excellent piece in a long list of excellent prescient articles on the legal profession.

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