How client succession is driving law firm consolidation

Maybe, as the President of the United States believes, the world needs more Canada. What we do know is that the world evidently needs fewer Canadian law firms.

It’s been a busy month in the Canadian legal marketplace. On Sept. 12, Norton Rose Fulbright completed its six-year-long Canadian expansion by acquiring Vancouver’s 95-lawyer Bull, Housser & Tupper. On Sept. 20, DLA Piper picked up Toronto IP boutique Dimock Stratton and 16 of its 19 lawyers. And just yesterday, the largest firm in Manitoba (Aikins, MacAulay & Thorvaldson) and the largest firm in Saskatchewan (MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman) announced their merger and the creation of a 240-lawyer western Canadian firm, MLT Aikins. Market watchers might also recall that global labour and employment law giant Littler Mendelson came to Canada last year by swallowing Toronto L&E boutique Kuretzky Vassos, among other recent consolidations.

Canadian lawyers celebrating another law firm merger.

Canadian lawyers celebrating another law firm merger.

There’s something going on here, and it’s not just limited to Canada. I’ll run through some of the local implications first before looking at the big picture.

The Norton Rose, DLA Piper, and Littler expansions are qualitatively different from the MLT Aikins merger (although the fashionable thing these days is apparently to call all such deals “combinations”). These first three deals are acquisitions, pure and simple — and the easy way to differentiate an acquisition from a merger is that in the former, the name of the acquired entity disappears completely. Norton, DLA and Littler are international firms with worldwide brands, and a major element of their value proposition is sheer size and geographic reach. Each of these firms grows by absorbing smaller firms (or in the case of Ogletree Deakins, which also crossed the 49th parallel earlier this year, by raiding an established large firm). Norton Rose says its shopping spree is done; I’d be surprised if the same were true for DLA or Dentons, or for other global firms that are probably in serious acquisition talks with smaller Canadian firms right now.

MLT Aikins is a different beast — it’s a good old-fashioned blockbuster merger, of the kind we’ve not seen around here for awhile. The two originating firms were about equally matched in size and reputation in their neighbouring provinces (it’s a coincidence, but a nice one, that two of western Canada’s largest potash companies also announced their plans to merge this month, creating a $36 billion behemoth). A Prairie law firm (MLT Aikins will have a robust presence in Alberta and a smaller one in British Columbia, but it will probably be dominant mostly in its home provinces) is a sensible idea, and an overdue one: look at Atlantic Canada, where a fleet of small provincial firms merged into regional powerhouses back in the 1990s. And while many people outside the country (and more than a few inside) might dismiss what they think of as Canada’s “flyover provinces,” there’s a lot of resource development and business innovation happening there. If the two firms can successfully merge their cultures and operations — and that, of course, is always a colossal “if” — than MLT Aikins could be a powerhouse.

But this trend isn’t limited to Canada. Altman Weil told us back in January that 2015 was a record year for US law firm combinations (there’s that word again). Look closely at the list, however, and you’ll see that most of these “mergers” were the absorption of smaller firms in myriad jurisdictions by global giants (Dentons in particular seems like it won’t be satisfied until it has an office on the moon).

The advantages to the acquiring firms in deals of this type are obvious: new locations opened, top lawyers acquired, cash and PPP infused, brand extended, and so forth. Not everyone would choose to make size and reach their market differentiator, but if that’s what your firm has decided to do, then these are the tactics you adopt. Managing a firm that far-flung and with that many people — most of whom belong to a profession that’s not exactly renowned for collegiality and esprit de corps — is going to be, shall we say, a challenge. But if this is the life you’ve chosen, then I wish you godspeed.

What’s a little harder to perceive are the advantages to the acquired firm. Name deleted, history ended, autonomy lessened, reputation slowly fading away as new brand replaces old — that’s not what you’d normally consider a loot bag of treasures. If the new name, brand, and reputation are superior to your old one, then great. And if the new platform is stronger, more technologically advanced, more efficient and productive than what you had before, then all the better. But it seems to me that few law firms secure in their markets and happy with their current status and future prospects would be rushing to make that trade. One does not normally submit to another’s terms from a position of strength.

Shortly after Altman Weil released its 2015 merger report, Edwin Reeser, one of the most perceptive analysts of the current BigLaw market, published his own commentary, which included the following observations:

We can expect more “merger” activity as long as there are buyers in the marketplace who are interested in the acquisition of revenue streams. Who are the sellers of these revenue streams? In many instances, they are going to be lawyers, typically smaller groups of lawyers, who have something worth selling. But why would they sell voluntarily if they have a good thing going? Typically because they have one or two fundamental problems associated with their sustainability as an enterprise. One is succession to leadership. Two, and perhaps more fundamentally, to continue generation of the revenue stream when one key partner retires. 

A “merger” into a larger firm with an established operating structure and breadth of talent can help preserve that revenue stream. The pricing for such a move to a larger firm usually involves: (1) a compensation cut for the acquired lawyers, a function of higher overhead and thus lower operating margins in many larger law firms; (2) the need for a profit for the acquiring firm to be derived from the work and revenue generated by the new addition; and sometimes (3), a deal feature that allows the acquired lawyers to monetize and harvest some of the built-up value in their firm that would otherwise be lost if they were to wind down.

I am not, emphatically not, applying the foregoing analysis to any of the firms mentioned in this piece. But the term “liquidating merger” has a lot of resonance to me in this current market, because it tracks with something else I’ve been noticing for awhile myself.

I’ve been saying to law firms over the last year that the “succession planning” train has just about left the station. The time to plan for succession in law firms, to begin transitioning client relationships from senior partners to younger ones, was five to seven years ago. Many of us in the commentariat tried to persuade law firms in this direction; not many firms tried, and few succeeded. Now, because succession planning didn’t occur, we’re entering a period of “succession management” — and you can read that in the same sense as “crisis management” or “disaster management.” This will prove to be a significant, and ultimately transformative, development.

All these matters will be lost in time ... like tears in rain ... Time to merge.

All these matters will be lost in time … like tears in rain … Time to merge.

Succession is going to happen in law firms, in the sense that when a client relationship partner retires, that relationship and the work that accompanies it will transition to another provider. But as we know, in most law firms, the partner has no interest in encouraging that transition. The last five years of his practice figure to be the most gloriously profitable of his career, the crown upon his decades of hard work, and he’s not going to let any other head wear that crown even part-time or on weekends. Pleas from the managing partner to “think of the firm’s future” and “leave a legacy” will melt some partner hearts, but not most. I’m not judging any lawyer who responds in this fashion, but that’s the reality in many firms, and it’s an enormous challenge.

But here’s the thing: that challenge is actually greater than most firms realize. Because while the firm’s leadership fumes and fulminates about “succession,” the client is over here waving its hand and saying, “Uh, I’m pretty sure I have some say in where my legal spend is going now.”

The problem with “succession planning” is the arrogance of the assumption that the firm will unilaterally decide who takes over the client’s work, perhaps by way of written notification: “Dear client, since Bill has retired, you will now be dealing with Bob, best regards.” Clients, as I’ve been saying for some time now, have options, and they are exercising them. They can choose the lawyers in this firm with whom they want to deal, or they can choose another firm, or an LPO, or a flex-time lawyer platform, or an employee doing insourced work, or a software program. I’m just guessing here, but I doubt that most clients enjoy being regarded as an asset to be passed on to the law firm’s next generation, like a sacred relic or a family heirloom. The days when the firm could simply assume the client’s continued patronage following a partner transition are done.

That’s why the real opportunity presented by “succession” is to open a dialogue between the firm and the client about how the client would like to be served following the partner’s retirement. I wouldn’t be surprised if many clients actually look forward to these retirements — not because they’re glad to see the partner go, but because it gives them an opportunity to reset and enhance the business relationship without the risk of compromising the personal relationship that had developed. But I don’t think most firms recognize this opportunity, or act on it if they do. They see only that a lawyer who “controls the client” is retiring, and they need to find another lawyer to “control the client” afterward. But they lack the cultural mechanisms and the leadership to pull that off, and even if they could, they’re missing the larger point about how the nature of client relationships has changed.

The upshot, in firms that are experiencing this phenomenon, is that the eventual or imminent departure of relationship partners will leave the firms with few prospects for their continued growth or even stabilization. Within the next five or ten years, most of their business generation and client relationship machinery is going to be sailing yachts around the Mediterranean. As Ed Reeser says, the firms are losing the means “to continue generation of their revenue streams,” and they lack ways to renew those streams or start new ones. The next generation of partners, seeing this unfold before them, starts eyeing the exits, and the junior lawyers get worried and restless. In those circumstances, why not pick up the phone when the big firm calls, so that the indignity and messiness of a gradual decline can be replaced by the savvy strategy of merging with a global giant?

The inability of many law firms to address the difficult issue of key partner retirements, or to take advantage of the opportunity they present to reset and strengthen their client relationships, has left the firms with few options for continued growth down the road. This has surely been increasingly clear to the leadership groups within these firms for some time. And now we’re seeing a marked rise in the dissolution of law firms through their acquisition by much larger firms, effectively pushing all the difficult conversations and decisions about the firm’s future onto the desks of strangers in another city or country. It might be a coincidence that these two developments are trending in parallel. But I’m not inclined to think so.

BigLaw levels up

My older brother used to give my teenaged self (with some justification) a hard time about playing Dungeons & Dragons. I eventually grew tired of the cracks about wasting time in a fantasy world, though, and I assembled what I considered a strong defence of the game. “D&D helps you build a lot of skills,” I said. “You develop your imagination and creativity; you practise your problem-solving abilities; you learn to collaborate with others and pool your unique resources in working towards solutions.” This triumph of rationalization clearly had “future law student” written all over it.

But here’s something else Dungeons & Dragons pioneered: It was one of the first games to reward a player’s success with greater abilities. You don’t gain powers throughout a game of Monopoly or Risk or Scrabble; you just amass more money or territories or points. But in D&D, every successful venture results in “experience points,” and when you reach a certain amount, your character moves up a level and gains new abilities as a result. Your capability increases as you gain experience — much, ironically enough, as in real life. It’s called “levelling up,” and today, so many games contain some variation on that theme that we take it for granted.

Of course, as you level up, your opponents become stronger and your challenges become greater — again, much as in real life. Large law firms, it seems to me, are now in the process of “levelling up” — through effort and experience, they’re forging successes that are increasing their effectiveness and helping them pull ahead of their peers. But as they do so, newer and tougher challenges are rising up to greet them — and it’s an open question whether the firms will be up to the task.

BigLaw has, in fact, been paying attention to what’s going on around it, and this should not really come across as a surprise. For all the grief that people like me enjoy giving them, large law firms are not actually hapless dullards stumbling backwards towards the edge of the cliff. They’re big operations with tons of money and some really smart people high in the org chart, and they’ve noticed that the legal environment is undergoing irreversible change that threatens their business model. Not every firm that recognizes its peril can do something about it; but those that see the challenge, and can execute to meet it, are more numerous than popularly believed.

A raft of examples has emerged just in the last few months to illustrate this. Prof. Bill Henderson highlights three large firms — Bryan Cave, Littler Mendelson, and Seyfarth Shaw — that have made great strides in technology, systematization, and workflow, and are revolutionizing the way they do business and serve clients.  The American Lawyer‘s Aric Press points out the rapid rise of pricing officers in BigLaw (76% of large US firms now have one) and its implications for changes to cost and profitability management, value definition, and partners’ pricing discretion. LeClair Ryan teamed up with LPO United Lex to create a Legal Solutions Center for doing routine, repeatable work with low costs and high systematization, just the latest in a line of firms to outsource straightforward work to a low-cost provider. Allen & Overy even commissioned and published its own report into the future of legal service delivery.

Ron Friedmann argues that far from being disrupted, BigLaw has begun to adapt to the new forces at work in the market: “Most US large firms continue to perform fairly well. While some firms do suffer, many thrive.” This undoubtedly is true. To a greater or lesser degree, many BigLaw firms have levelled up: they’ve learned, invested time and energy, and made adjustments that helped them improve their productivity and effectiveness. They should be commended for that, because it really is not easy to introduce change of any kind into large organizations with extremely diffuse decision-making authority and a deep ambivalence about innovation. [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

But the thing about levelling up, of course, is that as your own powers increase, your quests become tougher too. Intermediate warriors don’t take on goblins and orcs anymore; they’re up against cave trolls and frost giants. It’s great that BigLaw is overcoming its initial challenges, because the next set will not only be tougher, they’ll be multi-dimensional. From my perspective, here are four forces with which large law firms will shortly have to contend:

The exponential growth of technology. I’m still relatively sanguine about the ultimate impact of technology on the legal sector — mostly because I’ve never yet had to reboot a lawyer. But it’s difficult to ignore the evidence that machines are becoming extraordinarily good at replicating many functions that firms traditionally assigned to their attorneys. Clio’s Joshua Lenon provided a useful overview of a panel at the most recent International Legal Technology Association meeting that featured insights from four accomplished legal tech leaders. Lawyerist’s Sam Glover explained Fastcase’s Bad Law Bot and its head-spinning implications for litigation. There are so many new applications now, from Shake and Fair Outcomes to Neota Logic and Picture It Settled, that it’s a matter of when, not if, tech will start seriously infiltrating BigLaw.

One name in particular keeps popping up in these conversations: Watson. The American Lawyer gave us a snapshot of what IBM’s machine-learning behemoth is now capable of (the version that won Jeopardy! could read 200 million pages in three seconds; the current iteration is 24 times faster). IBM’s GC, Robert Weber, believes Watson could pass the bar tomorrow. (Interestingly, he also believes non-lawyers shouldn’t be allowed to own law firms.) Watson’s potential legal applications are already emerging: a version called The Debater assembled arguments for and against banning video games based on a lightning-fast survey and analysis of existing content on that topic. Ron Friedmann described some reservations about the outlook for Watson in law; for my part, I think there are many more repositories of useful legal data than large law firms that would be willing to help create these tools. And when technology does finally penetrate BigLaw firms, one impact will be felt above all others:

The collapse of their compensation systems. Michael Mills of Neota Logic, a speaker on that ILTA panel, wrote an incisive article about legal technology and innovation, specifically about the one feature integral to law firms that blocks both these forces: the billable hour. “The elephant in the room is stamping and snorting and must be heard: Innovation destroys hours. Now, that’s bad wherever the majority of lawyers’ revenue is rates x hours. Every hour saved is a dollar lost. But it’s especially bad for law firms, and that is almost all of them, whose partner comp schemes set the income of individual partners with a formula that counts the individual partner’s hours, or the hours of her team. Because then she knows that she will be personally penalized for her own innovations.” Innovations reduce law firms’ inventory, the billed hours of their lawyers. But equally, innovations are inescapable. You can see where this is heading.

Technological automation, process management, and operational efficiency will all be essential to the ability of large firms to be profitable in the years to come. But virtually every new tool or system that increases a firm’s productivity reduces the time spent to complete a task, and “time spent” is the lifeblood of lawyer compensation systems. And as I wrote years ago, the traditional law firm simply can’t function without counting and maximizing hours; it’s built into their financial and cultural DNA. De-emphasize or remove time as a factor in productivity, and you remove the one card holding up the whole house. So law firms that hope to be both functional and profitable will have to find new, non-hourly ways to remunerate their people. I don’t know of a single BigLaw firm that’s even close to that point. Something’s got to give here — but it’s not going to be the market forces driving change. It never is.

The rise of colossal competitors. The legal market is at the precipice of unprecedented regulatory upheaval. Most everyone knows about the Legal Services Act and the licensing of more than 300 Alternative Business Structures in England & Wales over the last couple of years. Not everyone realizes that among the legal entities that have been authorized there are law firm businesses owned by a giant insurance company, a telecommunications provider, and a financial and consumer services company. Most significantly, three of the Big 4 accounting firms have considered or (in the case of PriceWaterhouseCoopers) already received an ABS licence. These are all entities that traditionally have retained large law firms or have referred work to them. Non-lawyer law firm ownership, already approved in Australia and Great Britain, has been endorsed by the Canadian Bar Association and will likely be considered by Canada’s largest legal regulator next spring. Sooner or later, at least one US jurisdiction will follow suit, and the world’s largest legal market will be changed forever. This is the future competitive landscape that BigLaw needs to start anticipating today.

Take a closer look at the accounting firms, because if there’s any potential new player in the market that should keep BigLaw’s managing partners awake, it’s this one. “Accountants aren’t kidding with ABS this time,” wrote The Lawyer‘s Catrin Griffiths earlier this year, and she zeroes in on exactly why BigLaw should be watching very carefully: “The accountants are after bread-and-butter commercial, employment, mid-level corporate, immigration, outsourcing and IP; it may not be bet-the-company stuff, but they create deep relationships with clients that can be leveraged.” It can be argued that the likes of Parabis and Co-Op and Slater & Gordon are focused on the consumer market and therefore safely distant from BigLaw’s hunting grounds (although Parabis evidently aims to move into the corporate market); the same can’t be said for “Big4Law.” Lawyers struggle with value billing; accountants advise their clients on it. A tiny handful of the world’s largest law firms generate $2 billion in revenue a year; as Catrin points out, PWC alone clocks in at $32 billion. If a fight does break out in this sector, it won’t be a long one or a fair one.

The emergence of client self-determination. In some respects, this might be the most significant new challenge for BigLaw to unravel, because it goes to the heart of law firms’ work supply chain. Many lawyers have already experienced a reduction in work and revenue from corporate clients, and the biggest reason has been insourcing: clients keeping a growing chunk of work inside the law department. “Over the past decade, the number of in-house lawyers has doubled in the UK. Now, one in five lawyers practises in-house. Over time, private practice has lost up to 20% of its market share to its clients,” writes Reena SenGupta in Legal Business. “Few private practice partners can pre-empt problems in the way their in-house counterparts can. … Where will their value be in the future? Outside of specialist legal knowledge that does not reside in the internal legal team or the ability to marshal bodies for a major matter (and the necessity for the latter is in question), where is their value-add?”

I wrote recently about how clients will become lawyers’ biggest competitors, and nowhere does this apply more than with corporate, commercial, and institutional clients. They have the unique combination of a strong impetus to manage their legal affairs better and the financial assets with which to make that possible. They are re-positioning themselves in their relationships with outside counsel, viewing BigLaw as just another resource rather than the default sourcing option, and they’re placing themselves at the centre of a new risk management ecosystem. Large firms, for the most part, have no idea what to do about this. They find it difficult to look at the world through clients’ eyes; they lack the necessary empathy. They know how to receive and perform legal work, not how to develop and manage the complex client relationships that produce work. This is an institutional skill, one that can be learned — but it’s much tougher than installing new software or even initiating legal project management.

BigLaw has seen and has begun to respond to shifts in the legal market, and kudos to those firms that have done this the best. But I want to make it clear to them that this process is not over, but rather is just beginning. Fundamental assumptions about their business models, their competitive environments, and their client relationships are all poised to shift dramatically over the next ten years, and it will require extraordinary effort, resilience, and leadership for them to adjust accordingly. Many firms have found it exhausting just to get this far, and I’m not sure how well they’ll respond to what’s coming.

It would be foolish to write off BigLaw, even given the enormity of these challenges: recall what I said earlier about what size, smarts, and money can accomplish. But, man — this is not going to be easy. Welcome to Level 2.

Jordan Furlong is a lawyer, consultant, and legal industry analyst who forecasts the impact of the changing legal market on lawyers, clients, and legal organizations. He has delivered dozens of addresses to law firms, state bars, law societies, law schools, judges, and many others throughout the United States and Canada on the evolution of the legal services marketplace.

Reinventing the associate

Last week’s post, “The decline of the associate and the rise of the law firm employee,” wasn’t just my longest Law21 title on record. It also triggered a detailed response from Toby Brown of 3 Geeks, to which I left a lengthy comment and which in turn inspired a further comment from Susan Hackett of Legal Executive Leadership. Toby converted both of these comments to posts, and I’d invite you to read all three consecutively to get the full exchange of views.

My plan this week is to follow up my original post with two more: one (today’s) that will explore more deeply the past and future role of the “law firm associate,” and the other that will study the whole issue of “lawyer training.”

I don’t really have strong feelings one way or another about Greenberg Traurig’s new “residency” program, largely because (as I noted in my original post) we don’t have nearly enough data about what the program actually involves. If it manages to strike a healthy balance among the needs of the firm, the interests of clients, and the well-being of lawyer employees, then I’m all for it. We’ll have to wait to see how it unfolds in practice. For the moment, I’m  more interested in the implications of introducing another new employment category (“residents”) for novice lawyers in law firms. It raises the whole question of what we mean by “associates,” and why they exist.

For most of law firm history, lawyers who were not equity-owning partners had only one title (“associate”). Associate status represented two things: full-time salaried employment and potential future admission to equity partnership. In theory, associates are lawyers who are learning their craft and honing their skills for the chance someday to become partners — and that does still accurately describe a small percentage of each firm’s associate class. In practice, however, most associates are short-term, leveraged assets whose purpose is to bill hours that fuel the firm’s profits, and who will leave the firm (voluntarily or otherwise) well before the brass ring of partnership comes into view. [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

Many firms have begun to explicitly acknowledge this reality and to call this larger group of associates “staff lawyers” or something similar to indicate their status. Greenberg introduced the title of “practice group attorney” at the same time as it announced its “residency” program. Other firms refer to such lawyers with the unwieldy term “non-partner-track associates.” More senior members of this group, over the past several years, have been classified as “non-equity partners,” highly experienced associates whose time for partnership consideration has come, but about whom there are doubts (on one side or the other) that admission to partnership is a good idea. And now we have the “resident,” a short-term position for newly admitted lawyers that pays less, bills less, and gets “trained” more than a normal associate role.

So, for those keeping score at home, here are some of the ways in which law firms are now describing lawyers who aren’t partners:

  • Associate
  • Resident
  • Staff Lawyer
  • Practice Group Attorney
  • Non-Partner-Track Associate
  • Non-Equity Partner

That’s a whole lot of terms meant to express one basic idea: “You’re not an equity partner.” And for every title on that list other than the first one, there’s an additional component: ”…and you’re not going to become one, either.”

Toby argues that this is no bad thing: all of a law firm’s associates should not presumptively be considered its future partners, not least because few lawyers are truly cut out for the demands and responsibilities of ownership. I think that is certainly correct. But as I mentioned above, the title of “associate” has always carried with it the potential of ascendancy to partnership. Not every associate will become a partner someday; but any associate could become one. That’s the promise and the allure that gives “associate” an extra shine. And it’s exactly this shine, I think, that law firms are trying to remove these days.

Law firms are developing an allergy to equity partners. “Under-performing” partners are being removed from firm mastheads in every jurisdiction, while partner tracks grow longer and “non-equity partner” holding pens become more crowded. Altman Weil’s “Law Firms in Transition” survey explicitly advises law firms: “Make equity partnership very difficult to achieve.” The reason is simple: the revenue pie is shrinking, and the slices are becoming thinner than many partners want. The easiest short-term solution is to remove as many place settings as possible, adding new seats only for lateral recruits who can bring more pie of their own.

So it’s very much in law firms’ interests to lower the expectations of their associate lawyers about their chances of partnership. What many firms would prefer now is new classes of lawyer employees who don’t have all the baggage of “associateship.” These firms want salaried lawyers who work competently and bill profitably, but who neither desire nor expect equity partnership offers. All the rejigging and reclassifying of lawyers who used to be called “associates,” but who increasingly are called anything but that, is in service of this outcome.

The timing for this effort is excellent, because the traditional law firm associate model no longer works very well anyway.

  • New associates cannot be paid handsomely to be trained on clients’ dime as they once were, but firms don’t want to absorb the costs of training on top of the salaries they’re paying, and they’re afraid of cutting salaries because of the potential hit to their reputations in the market.
  • Experienced associates do good work and can still be billed at high rates, but the work they would normally be doing has been grabbed by partners desperate for billings, and the opportunities to gain experience early in an associate’s career are drying up anyway.
  • Senior associates have successfully run the gauntlet and “won the tournament”, but even these few winners increasingly outnumber the available internal routes to equity ownership, leaving them in a restless state of non-equity limbo.

In short, both a driving need and an unprecedented opportunity to replace or reinvent the law firm associate have arisen — and as it happens, they’ve arisen right in the middle of an historic surplus of unemployed lawyers.

In the result, for the next several years (and maybe longer), law firms figure to employ or engage the services of lawyers on much more advantageous terms than in the past. Whether located within the four walls of the law firm or in an outsourced capacity, most lawyers who work for law firms will do so at lower rates, with less job security, on shorter time frames, with less expectation of long-term equity rewards. The idea of “graduating” from associate to partner, from employee to owner, as part of a natural process of law firm development and advancement will lose its traction in many firms. If you no longer want to develop many partners, then you don’t really need many associates.  [do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

Is this good, bad, or indifferent? Insofar as firms are recognizing the growing obsolescence of the traditional associate model and are taking steps to rework it or replace it, I think it’s good: that model worked very well in the 20th century but seems a poor fit for the 21st. Agile, flexible workforces are coming to every industry, and the law will not be an exception. But describing this as a strategic shift may be giving law firms too much credit: in most cases, the driving force behind these moves is to reduce personnel costs and compress the ownership pool in order to increase partner profits on a short-term basis.

And it’s the short-termism that worries me. Law firms are meant to be multi-generational entities that grow through a natural cycle of development. You invest in new lawyers at a cost today because you confidently expect your investment to pay off years down the road; you accept short-term losses in exchange for long-term profits as part of a big-picture view of the firm. Law firms everywhere are currently gripped by a fever that drives the opposite behaviour: you accept long-term losses in exchange for short-term profits, because you won’t be around for the long term and you don’t really care what happens when it arrives. This, unfortunately, describes more senior lawyers in more law firms than I care to count, and it’s positioning these firms for a very dangerous future.

The traditional associate model needs to be replaced by something better. But it can’t be better just for law firm partners, or even just for partners and clients, and just for this year’s financial results. It has to be better for everyone, on a sustainable, sensible, long-term basis. If the associate model is replaced by a system that simply strip-mines our legal talent resources for maximum profit for the balance of this decade, leaving the cleanup and rebuild to the next generation, then as both a business and as a profession, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble. More on that in my next post.

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.  

The decline of the associate and the rise of the law firm employee

Earlier this month, Greenberg Traurig became the latest large US firm to take a new approach to its legal talent. Rather than firing secretaries or de-equitizing partners, however, as is all the rage elsewhere, Greenberg proposed something different and potentially groundbreaking: the introduction of a “residency” program for new associates. Here’s how the Am Law Daily describes it:

Join the firm as an associate, but only if you’re willing to spend a third of your time training rather than churning out billable work. The catch? Those who sign on will be paid considerably less than the typical starting associate, will bill at a much lower hourly rate—and may wind up only sticking with the firm for a year.

The offer is the basis of what Greenberg is billing as a new residency program that is being rolled out across its 29 U.S. offices. Firm leaders envision the program as a way of recruiting talented associates it wouldn’t have hired during the traditional on-campus interview process for one reason or another. It will also allow the firm to assign junior lawyers to client matters without billing their work at the usual cringe-inducing hourly rates.

Greenberg is simultaneously creating a new non-shareholder-track position, practice group attorney, that is akin to similar jobs created by Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; and others that have moved beyond the up-or-out structure typically employed by large law firms. …

[C]lients have been eager to use the junior lawyers, who cost less than a typical associate, and have allowed them to sit in on meetings and calls—at no cost to the client—as part of their training. The rest of the training, MacCullough says, comes via online courses with the Practising Law Institute, the professional development courses the firm offers all associates, and extra “hands-on learning” with partners without concern about billing for the time.

This initiative emerged from Greenberg Traurig’s Fort Lauderdale office, where new graduates are offered the chance to be “fellows” who resemble associates, but are paid less, bill less, and spend more time training. This innovation has now spread firm-wide. “Once the initial one-year period ends,” the Am Law Daily reports, “residents will either become a regular-track associate, take on the new practice group attorney title, or leave the firm.” (This reminds me of the old college football coach’s admonition against the passing game: “Only three things can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad.”) [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

Response to Greenberg’s program has been generally positive, and I can understand why. Anything that offers even partial employment opportunities to new law graduates these days has to be considered a good thing. The “residency” approach contains echoes of the “apprenticeship” programs that firms like Drinker Biddle, Strasburger, Ford & Harrison, Frost Brown Todd, and Howrey pioneered about 3-4 years ago and that I thought might herald a whole new approach to associate training. (They haven’t.) And Greenberg’s residents bear a close resemblance to Canada’s articling students, whose one-year apprenticeship in a law firm is a widely admired (although increasingly flawed) way to introduce new lawyers to practice.

Yet something still seems off. By crafting the position of “practice group attorney,” Greenberg has joined many firms in creating a class of associates who aren’t going to be partners; by introducing “residents,” Greenberg appears to be creating a class of lawyers who, most likely, aren’t even going to be associates. What’s not clear is why either of these new groups of lawyers are inside the firm at all. If what you’re looking for are low-cost, non-essential generators of legal work, why not talk to Axiom or The Posse List or any LPO with offices in Mumbai, Manila, or Minneapolis? Why introduce and maintain yet another costly group of lawyers who aren’t here for the long term?

One possible reason is that the whole point of the residents is to eventually replace the associates altogether. Lower salaries? Essential for continued partner profitability, and more reflective of actual associate value. Lower billing rates? Clients aren’t paying the higher rates anyway, so you might as well find a rate that they will pay. Lower billing targets? There isn’t enough work available for partners to make their targets, let alone new lawyers. As the article makes clear, these are really the only differences between a “resident” and an “associate.” Which of these two classes do you think the firm will want to sustain?

The law firm associate market is way overdue for a serious compensation correction: $160,000 starting salaries were and are ridiculous, relative to both the availability and value of new associates. New lawyers can’t and shouldn’t be expected to bill 1,900 legitimate hours a year, and a system that required them to do so was impractical and unwise at best, improper and unethical at worst. Something had to replace that system, and this may be the replacement.

Greenberg’s model is obviously still in its formative stages, and there’s not much point in exploring it further with such limited data. But it’s possible that it might be part of the next stage, maybe the final stage, in the decline of the law firm associate and the rise of the lawyer employee.

Go back several decades to the emergence of the Cravath model, which originally viewed a small class of salaried associates as future partners who could nonetheless generate profits through leveraged work along the way. The distortion of that model, over time, led to much larger and more profitable associate classes, of which only a few members would make partner — but all the same, the firm and its clients still treated those associates as professionals with potential long-term value. We’re now on the verge of entire associate classes whose only purpose and value is to generate leveraged work. They are not meant to be future partners: they are temporary employees meant to sustain the practices of current partners for as long as those partners need them. [do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

You might object that that’s not a good long-term stratagem. But a lot of law firms these days aren’t being managed for the long term, and there’s nothing more long-term than associate development: the investment of serious time and money in hopes of producing future partners. Many firms are employing fewer new lawyers than ever, and they have little incentive to invest heavily in the long-term development of the ones they do. They don’t need more equity partners — many firms are busily culling their own ranks — and if they do, they’ll get experienced, plug-and-play veterans with books of business via lateral acquisitions in the free-agent market. (Where laterally trained partners will come from in future, if firms no longer commit to investing in new classes of associates today, is not firms’ leading concern at the moment.)

It’s therefore possible that the era of the “law firm associate” — the partner in training — is now coming to an end, as I suggested back in 2009. Replacing it might be the era of the “lawyer employee” — here today, gone tomorrow, with a completely different set of expectations on each side about the nature of the relationship. It’s true that at several firms, the transition I mentioned above has long since taken place: most associates are essentially revenue generators. But the title of “associate” has a lengthy history and carries powerful expectations: “associateship” has been the precursor to “partnership,” just as adolescence has been the precursor to adulthood. Take away the title of “associate” and replace it with something smaller and poorer — “intern,” “resident,” “employee” — and the impact is profound.

This must surely be an attractive route for many law firms eager to reduce salary costs, minimize training expenses, and boost partner profits. But there’s a risk to the law firm that trades associates for employees straight-up, that diverts resources from internal development to external acquisition: it might permanently lose its capacity to develop any lawyers at all.

The ability to onboard a new lawyer, bring her into the firm’s cultural and structural orbit, develop her capacity to produce higher value over the course of time — this is an organizational skill, no different than any other a firm might possess. A firm that ceases to take internal development seriously will see that skill atrophy: it will become a muscle rarely exercised, with predictable results. PD professionals may leave the firm for better environments elsewhere; partners may lose whatever remaining interest they might have had in bringing along new lawyers; potential recruits may regard the firm as a dead end. These outcomes might not matter to the firm today. I guarantee that they’ll matter down the road.

Once a law firm switches off its lawyer development engine, it’s not easy to rev it back up again — and if you intend for your firm to be operating more than five years from now, it’s an engine you will desperately need to work at some point. That’s the tradeoff, whether they realize it or not, that some law firms now seem poised to make.

There’s another risk to this development, by the way — a threat to the continuing development of the legal profession itself. But that’s for another post.

[Here’s the next instalment in this series: “Reinventing the associate.”]

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.  

Law firm profitability metrics: Just subtract lawyers

I’ve received a lot of great feedback and commentary on my post earlier this week, “Death to Profit Per Partner,” none of it better than from my friend Toby Brown of 3 Geeks and a Law Blog. In a post at 3 Geeks this morning, Toby channeled the spirit of Weekend Update in challenging some of the premises and conclusions of my post. Here’s a sampling:

Although [Jordan] makes many arguments for why and how PPP might be a negative force, he misses the main point of why PPP or any other law firm profit metric exists. They exist to drive behavior. Firms need their partners to behave in profitable ways and need to set clear expectations of what those ways are. Without a clear expectation, firms can fully expect partners to perform in whatever way enhances their self interest, regardless of its impact of the economic health of the firm.

Giving Jordan credit, currently firms seem to only have the goal of improved profits (however they might be defined). I am in complete agreement that for firms to be successful for the long haul, they need a better goal: something like being the best and most cost effective at addressing their clients’ legal needs. Focusing on client needs does lead to success. But then we still need to define success. And ‘profitable’ needs to be part of that definition.

The fact that a given PPP number is not a true mean or median is beside the point. The real point is whether profits are healthy. PPP is actually a fiction, like most profit methodologies. However, without having profit be part of ‘success’, then a firm risks going out of business and ending its ability to be the best at addressing client legal needs.

Toby invited me to respond, and I gave it my best Jane Curtin. I recommend you click over to Toby’s post to read his entire argument and the ensuing dialogue. But here’s essentially what I had to say:

I disagree with the contention that the main point of why PPP (or any other law firm profit metric) exists is to drive behaviour. The main point of a profit metric is to measure profits. That’s what it’s there for. A law firm has many tools to shape behaviour, some of them explicit (compensation and bonus systems, for example) and some implicit (cultural expectations and peer pressures). But in almost every case, a law firm uses only one method (PPP) to tell itself and others whether and what to extent it’s healthy. The choice of profit metric does have a distant, secondary influence over behaviour (more on the relationship between the two below), but that’s not primarily why it’s there. [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

It’s entirely correct to say, as Toby does, that “[f]irms need their partners to behave in profitable ways and need to set clear expectations of what those ways are.” But we diverge at the sentence following: “Without a clear expectation, firms can fully expect partners to perform in whatever way enhances their self interest, regardless of its impact of the economic health of the firm.” I would argue that in fact, that’s exactly the situation we have now: partners do act in their self-interest, aggressively so, and firms’ current choice of PPP as their profitability metric directly encourages this.

PPP is a profitability measure based on the interests of partners, not on the interests of the firm. When it comes to PPP, the profit metric does not drive partners’ behaviour and priorities; in an unhappy twist, it’s partners’ behaviour and priorities that have driven the choice of this metric.

There’s no question that profit does need to be somewhere in our definition of the “success” of a law firm (unless you’re running a non-profit enterprise, which very few lawyers are). Whether profit is higher or lower on the list of success attributes will vary from firm to firm. But the main point of my original post was that it can’t be the sole criterion. More importantly, though: if we do use “profit,” we can’t define it as “individual partner profit,” because that will only maximize the natural human tendency to look out for oneself above all else. “Firm profitability” is the only sustainable and sensible way to frame the question of the legal enterprise’s financial success.

Now, this leads us to a critical point, as framed by Toby: “There is a need for a real debate over which profit methodologies do make sense for law firms.” I am assuredly not an economist, and I can’t speak with any authority as to what the best methods might be. But I do strongly believe this: calculating profit using volume of lawyers as a denominator is not only self-defeating, it’s also on the verge of obsolescence. This applies not just to PPP, but also to its current popular rival metric, RPL (Revenue Per Lawyer). It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about partners, associates, or both: “Lawyers” will soon be a mostly irrelevant factor in the equation.

Law firms in the future will employ far fewer lawyers, and include far fewer partners, than they have in the past. More legal work (and much more quasi-legal or fully clerical work currently billed by lawyers) will be routed to systems, software, para-professionals, temps, and LPOs. For a perfect example of this trend, look at Winn Solicitors in the UK: a hugely successful firm, £10 million in annual profits, loads of non-lawyer and para-lawyer staff, and essentially just one partner. Measured by PPP, this car accident law firm is about 10 times as profitable as Cravath or Skadden. No offence intended to Winn, but do we really think it’s 10 times better a firm?

Starting now, and increasingly in the coming years, law firms are going to make a lot more of their money through non-lawyer means. This is why it’s absurd to cling to a lawyer-centred metric like PPP. Defining law firm profitability by lawyer is like defining Wal-Mart profitability by salesclerk. The only way to know if a law firm is profitable is to look at the profits of the firm. The longer we keep our focus on individual partner profit, the more time we’ll waste measuring the wrong thing.

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.  

Death to “Profit Per Partner”

It’s time for law firms to junk “average Profit Per Partner” (PPP) as a measure of profitability and success. Past time, actually: our continued adherence to this shallow and self-centred metric is a prime contributor to the BigLaw existential crisis we’ve been reading so much about lately. By using PPP as the primary (if not the only) criterion by which to assess our law firms’ health, we perpetuate a host of self-destructive habits and impair our ability to operate our law firms in a truly profitable and professional manner.

There are two broad categories of reasons why PPP is a disastrous success metric for law firms. The first category has to do with the narrow and simplistic nature of this measure and its inherent definitions of value. The second is related to PPP’s increasingly outdated devotion to individual shareholder profits.

Let’s start by understanding exactly how primitive average profit per partner really is. First of all, it’s “average” —  adding up total firm profits, dividing by number of partners, and ending up with an amount that might well reflect no single partner’s profit at all. (Recall Bill Henderson’s dismantling of the concept of a $90,000 “average starting salary” for new law graduates, when he demonstrated the bimodal distribution of such salaries and that virtually no new lawyers actually earned $90,000 in their first year.) With the ratio between highest-earning and lowest-earning partners now more than 9 to 1 throughout the AmLaw 100, an “average” profit is almost meaningless, too easily skewed by outliers at either end.

We might improve slightly on PPP if we adjusted it to measure “median profit per partner” — at least then we’d have some confidence that a few partners are actually making that amount, and outliers wouldn’t distort the data. But even here, we run into another fundamental problem: the definition of “partner.” Law firms have tended in recent years to extend this title to lawyers, and retract it from them, based largely on their present accounting needs: we’re currently in the depths of a “de-equitization” trend, evidently based on a desire to reduce the number of seats at the table and the number of denominators in the PPP equation. This is worse than the tail simply wagging the dog — this is the tail deciding whether there’s even a dog back there or not. If a metric is going to determine your growth strategy, it had better be a damn good metric. [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

But PPP is not a good metric: it drives selfish, irrational, destructive behaviour. If a firm’s PPP dips precipitously or its position in the AmLaw rankings falls more than a few slots, a veritable death watch is created for the firm, both inside its walls and in the wider market. Influential partners and rainmakers, most of whom know very little about actual firm profitability, feel compelled to jump to firms higher in the rankings — with no regard given to whether the “higher” firm will be better for them or for their clients. Morale falls within the firm, recruiting become harder, CVs start circulating — all because one simplistic metric says the firm is in trouble. Entrepreneurs would be shocked by the credulity and financial ignorance of lawyers revealed by PPP contests.

PPP is further susceptible to the widely recognized (but rarely acknowledged) fact that every set of PPP figures published for large law firms is entirely self-reported: law firms tell the market what their revenues, profits and partner counts are, and invite us to do the math. But hardly anyone steps up and questions whether the base figures themselves are accurate. Consider the brouhaha created in 2011, when some of the law firm profit numbers listed high in the AmLaw rankings varied from those in a report by the firms’ lender of choice, Citi Private Bank — and not surprisingly, the self-reported firm numbers were noticeably more robust than the bank’s figures.

Now, you might still be willing to overlook all these legitimate objections to PPP if you were convinced of one thing: that the annual profit earned by partners is a proper measure of the success of a firm, and that we should simply improve our analytics until we can measure that profit accurately. That belief rests on another basic assumption: that the ultimate and best purpose of a law firm is to generate and maximize profits for its partners. That brings me to the second, and I think even more incisive set of objections: this belief is false.

Law firm partners are the equity shareholders in their firm (and outside of England, Wales and Australia, only lawyers may be such shareholders). “Shareholder value,” in turn, has been the fundamental strategic goal of the corporate world for the last few decades: merge, diversify, fire, close, acquire, rebrand, lay off — do whatever it takes to maximize shareholder profits. This is a corporate philosophy whose time has passed. Justin Fox writes in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, in an article titled “How Shareholders Are Ruining American Business”:

This notion that shareholder interests should reign supreme did not always so deeply infuse American business. It became widely accepted only in the 1990s, and since 2000 it has come under increasing fire from business and legal scholars, and from a few others who ought to know (former General Electric CEO Jack Welch declared in 2009, “Shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world”). But in practice … we seem utterly stuck on the idea that serving shareholders better will make companies work better. It’s so simple and intuitive. Simple, intuitive, and most probably wrong—not just for banks but for all corporations. …

[The] heyday [of shareholder value] ended with the stock-market collapse that began in 2000. The popping of the tech-stock bubble demolished the notion that stock prices are reliable gauges of corporate value. And as the economy languished, the shareholder-driven U.S. corporate model ceased to look so obviously superior to its Asian and continental-European rivals. The intellectual assault on shareholder value began, and has been gaining strength ever since. …

Multiple studies of corporations that stay successful over time—most famously the meticulously researched books of the Stanford-professor-turned-freelance-business-guru Jim Collins, such as Good to Great—have found that they tend to be driven by goals and principles other than shareholder returns. … In a complex world, you can’t know which actions will maximize returns to shareholders 15 or 20 years hence. What’s more, most shareholders don’t hold on to any stock for long, so focusing on their concerns fosters a counterproductive preoccupation with short-term stock-price swings. And it can be awfully hard to motivate employees or entice customers with the motto “We maximize shareholder value.”

You can see the many parallels between American corporations and law firms in this regard:

  • PPP as an overriding goal also rose to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s (a period often associated with the start of a decline in professionalism);
  • Shareholder profit does not predict the health of an enterprise (Dewey & LeBoeuf was profitable until the day it crashed);
  • Rampant partner mobility and lateral hiring frenzies parallel shareholders’ increasingly short-term possession of company stock;
  • “Annual partner draws” parallel “annual shareholder earnings” and drive short-range, revenue-now behaviours;
  • Staff members and associates don’t share in the profits, so how they can be expected to support a strategy in which they have no personal claim?
  • Truly great firms are driven by goals and principles (how often have we said to ourselves, “Law used to be a respected calling, firms used to be places with a higher sense of purpose,” etc.?).

I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that when PPP became law firms’ fundamental measure of success, lawyers at these firms began to lose their compass, and the firms themselves began to lose their way. [do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

So it’s not just that PPP measures only one simplistic thing — it measures the wrong thing. There is no correlation, let alone causation, to be found between profits earned by equity partners on average and a host of other positive features that could equally reflect firm success:

  • Firm-wide profitability
  • Lawyer and staff retention rates
  • Lawyer and staff morale
  • Client loyalty
  • Client satisfaction
  • Community impact
  • Pro bono commitment
  • Prestige

That last one really goes to the heart of the issue: more lawyers now reflexively accord more prestige to a firm depending on its AmLaw ranking. But do you really think clients believe that a firm’s profitability — its ability to maximize revenue from these same clients — helps determine its prestige and desirability? And do you think clients applaud lawyers’ desire to make the maintenance and growth of that profitability their primary measure of success?

Law firms are, or should be, far more than profit machines for their equity partners, just as companies should be more than just profit machines for their shareholders. But even if you don’t believe the latter — if you think that capitalism is so base that corporations really should be nothing more than money engines — aren’t lawyers and law firms supposed to be different, and better? Isn’t this the argument we always hear against non-lawyer ownership of law firms: that “law is a profession,” that the greedy desires of businesspeople and shareholders would drive us to ruin if they were admitted to the ownership circle? If we’re so superior to mere corporate types, let’s prove it — by adopting a measure of law firm success that has more in common with today’s globalized economy than with Dickensian England.

I admire The American Lawyer and I have friends who work there (hopefully after today, too). But it’s time we called on AmLaw to abandon PPP as a measure of law firm success. The AmLaw rankings are incredibly influential within the US legal profession and have spawned imitators worldwide, and it makes sense that an independent assessment of law firms exists to guide both clients and lawyers in identifying “the best” firms. But we are in desperate need of improved criteria for determining “the best.” PPP is shallow, simplistic, and misleading; it encourages antisocial and unprofessional behaviour; and it’s out of step with modern enterprise philosophy. We can do better; we need to do better.

I have no doubt that constructing a more complex, sophisticated measurement of success among large law firms would be a difficult task — but that’s no reason not to try. If The American Lawyer again takes the lead, as it did years ago when it first developed the AmLaw 100, it could have a wide and (I believe) massively positive impact on how lawyers view themselves and how they run their law firms. If it chooses not to do so, it will only be a matter of time before someone else comes up with a rival ranking with different and better criteria that will capture the profession’s imagination.

Whether we like it or not, PPP is in its dying days. The sooner we put it out of its misery, the sooner we can start to bring new life to our law firms.

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.   

The secretarial canary in the law firm coal mine

“A really far-sighted law firm would give its secretaries the chance to ‘skill up’ and take on more responsibility, accomplishing more advanced tasks. … Change ‘secretary’ to ‘workflow manager’ or ‘logistics director,’ and you’ve accomplished three great things at once: increased the role of software in handling clerical and financial duties, reassigned your valuable secretarial help up the productivity chain, and attended to an area in which you can find real efficiencies and carve out a true competitive advantage over other firms.”

– Yours truly, “Legal secretaries 2.0,” January 24, 2008

In recent months, a number of major law firms have offered buyouts to legal secretaries, accelerating a trend that began before the downturn. This week New York law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP cut about 110 staff positions, including about 60 legal secretaries. “I would imagine that the remaining secretaries are going to take on a heavier workload,” said Lee Glick, a legal secretary with Weil who has worked there more than 25 years and still has a job.

The Wall Street Journal, “Legal Secretary, a Dying Job,” June 27, 2013

Contrasts like this one guarantee that I’m at no risk of overestimating my impact on the business of law.

I had fond hopes, 5 1/2 years ago, that law firms might take advantage of a dynamic environment and re-engineer their organizational workflow. Recognizing that secretaries’ purely clerical tasks could be done more efficiently elsewhere, for example, they would outsource or automate those tasks and liberate secretaries to take on more challenging, valuable and productive work.

As it turned out, however, firms only got as far as the first step: they sent the work to lower-cost providers. Then, instead of upgrading the qualifications of their loyal and experienced secretaries, they simply canned them. Surviving secretaries at a growing number of law firms are now expected to serve four lawyers at once — at some firms, that number is going as high as six or seven. Hands up if you think either the secretary or the lawyers are going to be better off as a result.

Five years ago, in an atmosphere of financial and social crisis, law firms threw numerous staff and associates overboard, in an effort to keep profitability levels from plummeting and sparking a rainmaker exodus. Not the best tactic in the world, but understandable at the time. Today, though, it’s as if those sacrifices were never made — the purges have intensified (staff, associates, and now other partners) as firms target for elimination any perceived drain on profits.

Based on all these cuts, I’m left to conclude that law firms apparently wish to be populated exclusively by extremely high-earning equity partners. In a magical land where complex legal businesses were run by invisible fairies, that would be a pretty nice outcome. In our world, however, where those partners need actual people to make their profits possible, the latest round of bloodletting bears a closer resemblance to profit-preserving cannibalization — a tactic that has its short-term merits, I suppose, but few long-term strategic advantages.

I want to take a look at what’s happening with law firm secretaries, and then I want to use that to illustrate what I feel is a growing, and serious, issue at the heart of law firm management.

First, why has it come to this: the evisceration of the legal secretary role? I can see three factors intersecting at the same time:

1. Many lawyers seem determined to view “secretaries” in their stereotypical role of clerical helpers, and as clerical tasks inevitably migrate to machines, secretaries themselves are perceived as serving no further purpose. I see secretaries differently: as lawyers’ “managers,” the people who quietly organize lawyers’ lives and enable them to practise law productively and effectively. The emergence of new technologies does not remove the need for lawyer management; if anything, it intensifies it. But if you really believe that a legal secretary performs low-value and easily replaceable functions, you will treat that position accordingly.

2. Many law firms seem equally incapable, even with countless high-tech tools and processes now at their disposal, of reconfiguring their workflow to be more sophisticated and cost-effective. The smart way to improve profitability is to outsource truly fungible tasks and upskill your existing resources (including, but not limited to, secretaries)  to take on more complex tasks that can deliver more value and/or reduce internal inefficiency. The stupid way to improve profitability is to fire people and give their work to their frightened surviving colleagues, thereby reducing personnel costs. Many law firms, near as I can tell, are choosing stupid.

3. Profitability pressures in law firms (more about that in a moment) have short-circuited any creative impulses that might have led firms to different outcomes for their secretaries. For instance: many lawyers still struggle with practice basics like client communication, marketing, and professional development. They would benefit tremendously from a dedicated resource whose job is to manage and organize all these aspects of their career — someone who has worked with them for years and knows them very well. If firms are going to reassign traditional secretarial duties elsewhere (and there’s good reason for them to do so), why not divert secretaries into these high-value and highly necessary roles, rather than just cutting them loose altogether? It’s not just a lost job, but also a lost opportunity.

It’s on that last point, I think, that we approach the heart of the problem. Law firms could help secretaries reimagine their roles, add more value to the firm, improve morale, and save jobs — they could do all these things, if they wanted to. But they don’t.  They don’t care about these things nearly as much as they care about maintaining or growing profitability. And the intensity with which law firms have come to care about profitability is starting to look a little sociopathic.

Something has gone seriously wrong at the core of a number of law firms. I don’t how else to describe it except as a mean streak — a level of selfishness and ruthlessness among decision-makers that we’ve not seen before. The triggering event was probably the massive change in client behaviour and the deeply unnerving drop in business that followed, combined with lawyers’ utter inability to adjust their own practices in response. But it seems to me that many lawyers aren’t just troubled or worried by what’s happening — they’re angry. Their income has fallen, and they’ve taken it personally, because that was income to which they were entitled. They’re feeling victimized, hard done by — and they’re lashing out, seeking instant remedies for themselves regardless of the long-term costs to others.

I’m not sure what it is about this latest round of cuts that feels wrong to me. Maybe it’s that it just seems so petty. You need to fire a secretary who earns a fraction of your annual billings in order to save your firm? That’s unlikely. You need to fire her in order to maintain the profitability to which you’ve become accustomed? That’s unseemly. They say you can judge a society based on how it treats its most vulnerable members, and I think the same applies to law firms. And I wouldn’t feel very proud to be a member of some of these law firms right now.

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.  

Available now! My first two published books: Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work) and Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.


Vulture culture

Tackling this subject, I admit, may simply be an excuse to achieve a long-held goal of using an Alan Parsons Project album as a post title. (Next up: finding a way to smuggle in a Supertramp reference.) But in truth, I was pointed in this direction by a couple of recent developments that revisited the well-worn topic of “law firm culture.”

The first was the most recent Citi/Hildebrandt Client Advisory, which confirmed the increasingly evident fact that for midsize and large law firms, Winter’s Here. Among the report’s contents was this warning:

“Law firms discount or ignore firm culture at their peril … the leaders of a firm whose partners pride themselves on their dedication to public service, a culture of collegiality and tolerance, and a commitment to share profits in a fair and transparent manner should acknowledge the importance of this culture to the firm’s success so far.”

I would be hard-pressed to find a sizeable law firm that demonstrably fits this description in reality, not just in its partners’ imagination. As Steven Harper points out, almost everything about large firms’ strategy and behaviour over the past several years can be described in precisely the opposite terms.

Law firm “culture” isn’t that hard to define, really. Culture is what people at the firm actually do every day. In harsher terms, it’s what people get away with. Culture is what actually happens. A law firm’s culture is the daily manifestation of its performance expectations and behavioural norms — what is encouraged and what is tolerated. So it’s not a matter of law firms “ignoring” culture — every firm has a culture, and most firms’ cultures are remarkably and depressingly similar. It’s a matter of recognizing that the culture that a law firm develops and sustains has an impact on productivity, retention and morale — in many cases, a catastrophic one.

“Collegiality” deserves a closer look, because almost every law firm insists that it maintains a “collegial” atmosphere. Stephen Mayson accurately points out that at most law firms, this is nonsense, driven by a misunderstanding of what “collegial” means:

Typically, partners are confusing collegiality with friendliness and sociability. Collegiate organisations make decisions in the long-term best interests of the firm, they are collaborative, and no individual is more important than the firm. What I hear described, though – most often in firms that claim to be collegiate – is an environment where personal and local interests are usually pursued in preference to the firm’s objectives. Work-hogging, and a refusal to cross-sell, are prevalent, fed by a personal billing and client origination culture. These firms are often low-trust partnerships, where it is not unusual for high billers to hold the firm to ransom or to throw their toys out of the pram when it looks as though they might not get their own way. This is collegiality?

It is not. But it is the culture of the typical law firm — the behaviours that are encouraged or tolerated.

The second development arose from my attendance at the Feeney Lecture at the University of Ottawa Law School, delivered this year by Mitch Kowalski on the subject of the changing legal marketplace. I was struck by the consistent and even predictable reactions from panellists and audience members to Mitch’s portrait of the legal profession’s future, which included a prominent role for “non-lawyer” owners and service providers.

Among the objections was the classic concern that law firms run by “shareholders” or in a “corporate manner” would see their standards and professionalism fatally compromised, and that — wait for it — the “collegial” nature and professional “culture” of law firms would be lost. See the foregoing paragraphs, especially Stephen Mayson’s diagnosis, and tell me precisely what it is that’s at risk here. Tell me how equity partners are any different, for all practical purposes, from non-lawyer equity shareholders. Tell me how the “de-equitization” of “underperforming” partners now being carried out by hundreds of lawyer-owned law firms across North America and Europe is an exemplar of professionalism and collegiality.

I would like to suggest that our positive (if not vibrantly self-admiring) vision of “law firm culture” belongs more to the realm of myth than to reality. There is nothing about an enterprise owned, operated and populated by lawyers that makes it markedly better than any other enterprise, and quite a bit that makes it noticeably worse.  The sooner we shake off our misconceptions in this regard, the sooner we can address, in an honest and grown-up way, what will happen when lawyers are no longer the only (or even the dominant) decision-makers in private legal enterprise. Miguel Pereira and Fergus Payne argue persuasively that law firms possessing an “ABS culture” will be focused primarily on financial performance — a state of affairs that is, in reality, no different than how today’s lawyer-owned law firms approach things. We’d be well-advised to remove the plank from our own eye before hunting for specks in anyone else’s.

Culture is important to law firms, but not in the way lawyers think. We cite “culture” as a bulwark against the unprofessional and uncollegial forces of the corporate, non-lawyer world, as a filter that differentiates us from the crowd. In reality, it seems to me, the tendencies we think we’re locking out with “culture” are often the very things we’re actually locking in.

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.

The lawyer vs. the law firm

So I’ve been thinking a lot about law firm mergers lately (especially between large Canadian firms and their much larger international counterparts). That in turn has led me to think about cross-selling, why it’s so important to the success of these newly merged firms (and others), and about the relative failure of firms to make cross-selling work. And these in turn have led me to my final post of the year, in which I usually try to assess the state of the legal market and what we can expect in the coming year.

At the end of 2009, I recommended we get ready for the rise of the client. As 2010 drew to  a close, I talked about the emergence of a truly competitive market for legal services. And as 2011 rattled off this mortal coil, lawyers’ increasingly precarious position in the market left me feeling generally apocalyptic. I don’t have anything quite so Armageddon-esque to suggest this year — Mayans notwithstanding, I feel pretty safe in predicting we’ll all wake up on Dec. 22. But I can forecast that a fundamental conflict at the heart of the private legal market will start to be addressed this year: the core, critical, and maybe irresolvable conflict between a law firm and its lawyers.


Let’s arrive at that conclusion by the same route I took to get there, and start with mergers.

Law firm mergers are odd beasts: they rarely have the same causes or produce the same effects as in the corporate world. When businesses merge, the general idea is to combine production facilities and reduce inefficiencies to lower costs while eliminating a competitor from the landscape. When law firms join together, however, they generally don’t conduct layoffs (quite the opposite — they usually boast about their larger workforce), they don’t reduce inefficiencies (more commonly, their inefficiency grows), and the lawyers with whom they’ve merged are encouraged to do more business, not less. Combining two law firms is a little like bringing together two big Lego towers to form a much larger one by adding a few bridging pieces.

So if firms neither seek nor obtain the streamlining benefits of merging, why are they merging in the first place? I posed that question in my article “Why Are You Growing?” in the most recent “Strategic Growth” edition of the Edge International Review, and I couldn’t find a very persuasive answer. I suggested, in fact, that at more than a few firms, merging isn’t so much an outgrowth of strategy as a replacement for it.

I went on to dispute the idea, buried deep among the assumptions inherent in law firm mergers, that when it comes to lawyers, “more is better.” Getting bigger, I observed, isn’t really the point of law firm growth. Becoming more effective, more valuable and more profitable is the point — and when you’re dealing with lawyers, adding more of them could actually interfere with those objectives, because lawyers are hard to manage in any firm and virtually impossible to manage in massive ones.


Which brings me to cross-selling (and to some observations borne out of an online conversation with Toby Brown).

One advantage frequently put forward in defence of global law firm mergers is the prospect of more business generated through cross-selling. With more partners in more offices in more key regions, the theory goes, there will be more opportunity for partners to reach out and generate new work from new partners in new offices, and to return the favour in kind.

It’s an excellent theory, undermined only by a larger practical problem: lawyers rarely cross-sell. In any firm “midsize” or larger — and I’ve now come to define that as any firm where you can’t fit all the lawyers into a workable cocktail party — most partners do not successfully cross-sell, and many don’t really try that hard. In most of these law firms, individual lawyers — not the firm itself — control client relationships. Therefore, a client will be referred internally only if his or her lawyer chooses to make that happen. Quite often, the lawyer does not.

Lawyers, as we know, guard their clients jealously, even from colleagues in their own practice groups. They will make no referral, and especially no long-distance referral, if they so much as suspect that the attorney or practice group to whom the client would be referred might fumble the ball, overbill the client, or otherwise make the referring lawyer look bad and potentially threaten the client relationship.

Now, you can certainly blame partner compensation systems in part for this problem, if they fail to appropriately reward cross-selling, although that’s the least of the sins to lay at their feet. Fundamentally, however, lawyers’ reluctance to cross-sell their partners can be traced to the breakdown of internal relationships and internal trust among a firm’s lawyers — or maybe more accurately, the failure of trusting relationships to develop in the first place.

Even in firms of 30 or 40 lawyers, these elements can be found wanting; but in a firm of hundreds or even thousands of lawyers, in multiple cities, on several continents, that challenge can and does graduate from Herculean to Sisyphean. In firms that big, you simply don’t know most of your “partners,” and you likely never will. Absent a high degree of familiarity and trust, the risks vastly outweigh the rewards for the potential cross-seller. (My Edge colleagues Gerry Riskin and Michael White have written articles addressing some of these issues, by the way.)

Unfortunately, however, it’s not as simple as “fixing” trust and relationships within a large or newly merged firm, assuming that you could. The problem goes deeper than that, and it goes back to one of those buried assumptions about law firms. As a rule, the individual lawyer, not the firm, gets to decide whether or not the client can deal with another lawyer; basically, the client gets referred internally if the lawyer who controls the client feels like it.

When you stop and think about it, that’s kind of strange.

The Lawyer vs. The Law Firm

When you walk into a clothing store, the first salesperson who greets you (even if he works on commission) will happily pass you over to a colleague to answer questions, receive advice, or otherwise be part of the transaction. At a car dealership, the first salesperson with whom you deal (and I can guarantee she’s getting a commission) will be willing to do the same. They’re not doing this because they’re warm-hearted communitarians; they’re doing it because they work for the company, and the company considers that you are its customer, not the salesperson’s. And the company is correct to believe this. The salesperson’s individual interests in your time and attention do not trump those of the company.

“But,” you and every lawyer reading this will instantly respond, “law firms are not clothing stores. In a law firm, the partner works for herself, she’s an independent equity owner, and she might well have pulled in the client herself, and she’s the one whose services will be delivered to the client and on whom liability will rest. She should have every right to dictate what happens to the client with whom she deals.”

And that, to my way of thinking, is the problem. Because a law firm in which this is the dominant cultural belief is not a business. It is not a functional commercial enterprise in any sense with which we are familiar. It is, to be blunt, nothing. It’s a warehouse where lawyers share rent, utilities, and a library, but not risks, rewards, or professional aspirations. It’s a farmer’s market; a neighbourhood yard sale; a souk. Some lawyers still feel like debating the old saw, “Is law a profession or a business?” I’ll tell you this: the typical law firm described above is neither a profession nor a business. It’s a cheap knockoff of both that behaves like neither.

And it cannot stand. Not when so many other real, actual, conforming-to-the-laws-of-enterprise companies are entering this marketplace. In real businesses, the interests of individual product makers or service providers are aligned with and subsumed into the greater interests of the company. In real businesses, personal success and market validation are integrated with the success and validation of the company. In real businesses, the salespeople don’t own the customers. 

This is more than a bug or an inconvenience or a profitability hiccup for law firms: it’s an existential challenge. It goes to the heart of why a law firm even exists in the first place — what purpose the firm serves in and for the market. And it’s creating serious stress at some of law firms’ most vulnerable points. The strain is already showing.

The Pressure Points

Look again at cross-selling. Law firms need robust cross-selling, because it’s almost the only source of organic growth that flows from a partnership format (as opposed to a lawyer’s own individual efforts). Without cross-selling, lawyers must develop business alone, on their own initiative — raising the fundamental question of why they’re even in a partnership in the first place. A law firm needs its lawyers to cross-sell, but it can’t force them to do so, and lawyers consider their clients to be part of their personal inventory. When it comes to cross-selling, therefore, a law firm and its lawyers are locked in an ongoing struggle for control of the client relationship — but for the firm, it’s always been a losing battle, because extremely few firms have built anything approaching a collaborative business environment to enable client sharing. There’s no collaboration at a farmer’s market.

Look again at mergers. In Canada, all the talk is about the decisions by Fraser Milner Casgrain and Norton Rose Canada to accept mergers with global firms that have a large US presence. This has never happened before, because most midsize and large Canadian firms receive huge inflows of referral business from multiple US firms, and tying the knot with one US firm means cutting off all those other streams for conflicts reasons. But let’s press that assumption harder: What will happen to a firm that loses all those referrals? The referral work will likely go elsewhere, yes. The lawyers who received that work will likely leave too. The firm will be smaller. But it will also be more focused, more specialized, more globally integrated — and quite possibly, more profitable for the remaining partners. Because, again, being big is not the point. Being effective, valuable and profitable is.

A law firm that pursues a merger which will surely result in a near-term loss of both referral work and lawyers has made a fundamental decision: the collective interests of the enterprise supersede those of some of its individual partners. The firm is saying: “We accept that this course of action will cause conflicts problems for many partners, some of them insurmountable, and that we may lose those partners and their revenue. But we have a core business objective: to serve X clients in Y markets through the provision of Z services, and that can best be achieved through this merger.” That is not only a gauntlet flung in the face of many powerful lawyers: it is a statement of rebellion against the cultural assumption that lawyers control clients. It’s an assertion of institutional identity and independence by the law firm.

Not many law firms have the wherewithal to try this and succeed. But assertions like these will become more common, because they are becoming more necessary. This conflict has always simmered beneath the surface of law firms, submerged from sight, except when the occasional skirmish erupted above the waterline. But now the entire fight is coming out into the open. Legal services has become a dynamic, competitive, global market, and the main reason so many law firms are struggling within this new market is that they cannot respond institutionally. They are held back by their lawyers, hamstrung by their souk culture, unable to muster enough collective gravity and momentum to make critical decisions. But they’re trying, more than they ever have before. Law firms in the future absolutely must become more streamlined, systematized, managed, automated, and centralized in order to compete — but that’s not what many of their lawyers want. So who wins, the firm or its lawyers? That’s the coming battle.

There is no shortage of conventional wisdom with which to object, starting with the old standby that “Clients hire lawyers, not firms.” And that might well have been true, much of the time, for many years. But I’m coming to conclude that clients acted that way primarily, and possibly only, because that’s how lawyers trained them to act. There has only ever been one source of outside legal services: the law firm. Most law firms have only ever been driven by one strategic imperative: the interests of their most powerful partners. Clients choose lawyers in no small part because that’s what lawyers want them to do. But give clients an actual choice of providers that approach business and client relationships differently — which our incoming competitors will deliver, in spades — and you have the opportunity to create a brand new playing field with a potentially whole new set of rules.

The Outcome

The lawyer vs. the law firm is a fight that’s been spoiling for years, and it seems to me that starting in 2013, it’s on. Once that battle is finally joined and completed, I can see only two likely scenarios for law firms that experience it.

1. The full-service law firm partnership will collapse. There will be insufficient reason for a broad array of lawyers to band together in a partnership when that model provides them with very few business benefits. If your “partners” will cross-sell or refer to you only on a whim, why are they your partners? The large, “full-service,” multi-jurisdictional law partnership will shudder and start to break apart; small, local, intensely interlocked practice groups will peel off and become the new basic unit of private legal enterprise. That result is where all the foregoing pressures are leading right now — if firms cannot gather enough internal cohesion to establish a business-first, practitioner-second culture, then the centrifugal forces that have been slowly pulling law firms apart for years will finish the job.

2. The law firm partner will lose his or her position as the driver of internal legal business. As apocalyptic as that first option above might sound, this would be the truly revolutionary outcome. Law firms require generous cross-selling and enlightened referrals; lawyers control both and resist both; ergo, cross-selling and referrals must be taken out of the hands of individual lawyers, because otherwise the continued viability of the firm is threatened. Under this scenario, the firm wins the war and becomes the primary or even sole driving force behind its business decisions; the cost will be high, measured in an outflow of lost work and departing laterals, and the loss of blood might be more than some patients can survive. But in the larger picture, the cult of the corner partner begins to die off, and a new cultural imperative emerges to govern law firm behaviour.

Unsustainable situations can’t be sustained forever. Conflicts at some point have to be resolved, and there is no bigger conflict within law firms than this one. If law firms are not strong enough institutionally to wrest control of client business from individual partners and distribute referral and cross-selling opportunities in a more strategic fashion, then they lose their primary reason for existence. If lawyers are not strong enough to retain primary control over their sources of legal work, then they stop becoming independent legal entrepreneurs and become the functional equivalent of mere employees.

Either the center will hold, or it won’t. That’s the question; in 2013, law firms will start to learn their answer.

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.

Why is your law firm merging?

What do you think of when you read the phrase “a large law firm”?

What type of law firm comes into your mind? How many lawyers does it have? In how many jurisdictions is it located? What is its annual turnover? How you answer these questions will vary according to your own market and how that market has shaped your expectations around size.

If, like me, you’re based in Canada, a large law firm generally means an entity with more than 500 lawyers and a substantial presence in four or more major cities. (At least, up until this week it did; but after Fraser Milner Casgrain agreed to join SNR Denton and Norton Rose announced its merger with Fulbright & Jaworski, that definition may be changing — here’s a brief video of my thoughts on those two mergers.) But “a large law firm” will mean something different in India, Australia, the United Kingdom or the United States — and it will vary again as between Delhi and Jaipur, Sydney and Perth, London and Glasgow, New York and Denver.

No matter how you measure size, however, you would probably agree that the world’s biggest firms are behemoths. They employ more than 2,000 lawyers (sometimes many more), they maintain more than 25 offices in numerous countries, and they generate in the neighbourhood of $2 billion in revenue every year. Norton Rose, following the completion of its Fulbright merger next June, will have an astonishing 3,800 lawyers in 55 offices worldwide. These are our profession’s giants, the legal colossi of the globe.

Now, stack the planet’s biggest law firms up against the Big 4 accounting firms. George Beaton of Beaton Consulting in Australia did just that in an article published earlier this fall. Each of these four firms, George pointed out, employs upwards of 100,000 people. The smallest of the four generates $20 billion annually. Each is larger than many of its big clients. If you merged the world’s two largest law firms and gave the new enterprise 5% annual growth, he noted, it would take the new mega-firm 17 years to reach the $10 billion mark. It can be done, and it may very well happen. But it won’t be overnight.

So when we talk about “large law firms,” we need to remember that size is relative. The very last company listed in the most recent Fortune 500 reported annual revenue in the $22 billion range. Our largest law firms are pikers by comparison.

There are plenty of reasons cited to explain why law firms seem to have a natural size limit, most prominently conflicts of interest rules and other ethical or regulatory constraints. Personally, I think that’s an excuse: if we really wanted 50,000-lawyer law firms spanning the globe, we’d have found a way around our self-imposed regulations before now.

The real explanation, to my mind, is that law firms can only grow so large before they transition from “difficult to manage” to “utterly unmanageable.” Law firms of all sizes are unwieldy collections of ferociously independent and self-interested lawyers famously reluctant to place organizational gain above personal advancement. These are character traits, it should go without saying, deeply inimical to building a world-class enterprise.

I once had lunch with a partner in a Big Four accounting firm, and I noticed that he constantly spoke in “we.” He talked first and foremost about the firm’s work and the firm’s objectives, the firm’s future plans, competitive strengths and long-term strategies. His own expertise was important insofar as it contributed to and reinforced what the firm was doing. Contrast that with the way many lawyers usually talk: in the first-person singular. They refer to their law firm not as the strategic core of their work, but as a beneficial platform or vehicle for what they do. The firm’s attributes are important for how they support the lawyer’s personal focus and expertise, rather than the other way around.

That’s why, if you’re looking to build a really huge law firm — whether you go the full merger route or take the Swiss Verein path or choose some other way there — you’re probably going to want to find a way to reduce the importance of lawyers in revenue generation.

Start by asking yourself: why do we want our firm to be bigger? Why do we want to expand? There are plenty of good answers to that question, most of them to do with serving multinational clients, following them around the globe, picking up new business in emerging economies, and so forth. There are also bad answers, including hubris, management ego, and expansion as a substitute for strategy.

But if you’re looking to get bigger so that you can better serve your clients, then maybe, as my Edge colleagues Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson suggest, you should ask your clients what they think about that. Chances are they’ll tell you that they’re not terribly excited by the prospect of their firm getting bigger. Very few people have ever found themselves saying, “Why yes, I’d love to have more lawyers.”

Moreover, as Gerry Riskin and Mike White explain, simply adding lawyers in another city or state or country is no guarantee that a client with business in that jurisdiction will automatically give that business to you. Think about it: if a competitor opened up an office in one of your current locations, would you expect your own clients to instantly decamp to the competition’s new office? Wouldn’t you be shocked and outraged if they did? Then why would you adopt expansion strategies that employ exactly that line of reasoning in the other direction?

Here’s the thing: Growth in a law business is not the same thing as adding more lawyers. Law firms do not exist in order to provide steady employment to the maximum number of lawyers — or, if they ever did, they don’t any longer. Law firms exist to provide legal services to the market in a cost-effective and profitable manner. “Adding more lawyers” is no longer the first and only way to make firms bigger and better.

Technological advances are disrupting many traditional ways in which legal work is done. Automated contract creation, e-discovery packages, data-crunching analysis systems, expert applications that answer regulatory and compliance questions, online dispute systems powered by game theory — all these programs and functionalities are available on the market, right now. They do work that lawyers used to do. Full stop.

Similarly, disruption has come to the legal talent model. If you can get good, solid work from a contract lawyer, or a lawyer in Mumbai or Manila or Belfast, or in an innovative firm like Axiom Law or Keystone Law, or from the lawyer’s own home — and you can — why would you put that lawyer in your expensive offices, on your full-time payroll, with salary and benefits and overhead? What’s so all-fired great about having tons of lawyers on hand?

The answer to that question used to be self-evident: Leverage. Billable hours. Profit generation by the simple expedient of adding bodies to files. Those days, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are gone. The business rationales that promoted “lawyer growth” as a stand-alone and sufficient profitability strategy are gone.

And lawyers, as I noted above, are often stumbling blocks to growth. Lawyers thrive on being big fish, and the bigger the pond, the smaller and less satisfied they’re going to feel. Lawyers want control over their environments, and as the environment expands, their control lessens. Expansion requires short-term risk for long-term gain, and lawyers tend to dislike both. Lawyers are hard to manage, and thousands of lawyers are thousands of times harder to manage. There’s a pattern emerging here.

“More lawyers in more offices in more locations” is not an end in itself. More revenue, higher efficiency, and greater profit, all delivered courtesy of satisfied clients — that’s the end you have in mind. Mergers and quasi-mergers might well be the perfect vehicle to get you there. But there are other routes, too.

If you want your firm to grow, then you need to clarify exactly, precisely, in show-your-work detail, why that is. And you need to remember that lawyers are no longer the only or best available driver of revenue in law firms. I suggest you take these two thoughts with you into your next law firm strategy meeting.

[This article appears in the Fall 2012 edition of the Edge International Review, a special issue devoted to Swiss Vereins and other innovative growth strategies for law firms.]

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.