Too big to succeed

(Note: This article is reprinted with permission from the July 10, 2012 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2012 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.  All rights reserved.)

What do we talk about when we talk about “BigLaw”? Let’s be honest: we’re not actually discussing specific law firms at all. We’re really talking about an idea, a model, an approach to the market. “BigLaw” is shorthand for a particular type of law firm, one that employs hundreds of lawyers charging exceptionally high fees to deliver a wide range of standard commercial and dispute resolution services to corporate and institutional clients.

Calling this model “BigLaw,” however, oversimplifies things. These are complex, multi-dimensional entities, and it’s neither accurate nor helpful to describe them by size alone. More to the point, in the months and years to come, the “Big” part of that name will become less relevant. Many of these firms are actually much larger than they need to be — and they’re about to get a whole lot smaller.

Here is an uncomfortable but increasingly unavoidable fact: most large law firms today are overlawyered:

  • They hired too many associates, back when associates were a widely traveled road to higher leverage and greater profits, with no clear plan for their long-term use or development.
  • They converted too many of those associates into oxymoronic “non-equity partners,” bestowing the prestige of partnership without adding the demands and sacrifices the title requires.
  • They promoted or laterally acquired too many equity partners, failing to grasp that partnership is best restricted to exceptional rainmakers and extraordinary managers of people or processes.

In the result, big firms now find themselves misaligned with the emerging realities of the modern legal marketplace. The word that best describes most of these firms is “bloated” — that sickly feeling that comes from indulging too long at the holiday banquet. The holidays lasted a long time for large law firms, but they’re ending now.

The staff and associate layoffs at big firms in the wake of the financial crisis were the first steps in this direction. The growing number of partner de-equitizations is the next stage, and in many firms, that process is just getting started. But it would be wrong to describe those cuts as strategic: for the most part, they were short-term, knee-jerk responses to real or anticipated drops in partner profitability.

What we’re about to see are very similar outcomes driven by very different considerations. Big firms are preparing to go on severe lawyer diets not to fend off dreaded declines in PPP, but because they’re simply not going to need as many lawyers as they once did.

It started, as most market trends do, with the customer. The financial crisis and recession offered corporate clients numerous opportunities to take a stronger hand in their relationships with big law firms, opportunities that they’ve largely squandered. But the law departments at least managed to push back on big firms’ routine fee increases and persuaded their outside counsel to pay more attention to cost control and legal project management.

However reluctantly, big firms did start paying attention to all these issues. And when they did, they rapidly came to recognize a growing array of options for performing legal work that don’t require full-time salaried lawyers.

Technology: Ron Friedmann has assembled this eye-opening list of large firms (including gilded names such as Skadden Arps, Sullivan & Cromwell, Linklaters, and Clifford Chance) that have created online legal services in areas ranging from Dodd-Frank and derivatives to trademark, privacy, and environmental law. These web-based, firm-exclusive solutions are complemented by a growing number of private-sector providers such as Neota Logic, kiiac, Koncision and Fair Outcomes, which all promise to disrupt traditional methods for accomplishing legal tasks (and the traditional workforce that has performed them).

Outsourcing: The initial entrants to this category were legal process outsourcing (LPO) companies, usually based in India, that promised high-quality legal work for much less than large law firms were charging. Many of these companies continue to thrive, such as Pangea3, famously purchased a couple of years ago by Thomson Reuters. But LPOs have since been overtaken in the profession’s imagination by other outsourcing options, including Axiom Law, The Practical Law Company, Novus Law, and Project Counsel, all offering entry-level legal tasks and managed legal services at much lower prices.

Insourcing: You might more accurately call this a market condition imposed upon large firms by their corporate clients, rather than a new option for the firms to work differently. But the practical effect is the same: in-house law departments are choosing to keep more work, especially routine work, within their offices rather than farming it to outside firms. This makes big firms even less inclined to maintain large cohorts of associates, especially newer lawyers unqualified to do much beyond basic tasks. For firms that depended heavily on that routine work to bolster the bottom line, the impact on revenue is even more pronounced.

Every day, more large firms across the U.S. and the U.K. avail themselves of these options, sending more work outside their walls, beyond the border, or into software programs, making full-time salaried lawyers increasingly unnecessary. The ultimate outcome isn’t hard to foresee: large law firms are going to get smaller.

Less work for lawyers isn’t a theory or a prediction: it’s already a fact. In the U.K., many large firms continue to announce new rounds of layoffs each week. Job losses in the U.S. legal sector have stabilized for now, but overall employment numbers are still below pre-recession levels. Moreover, the ABA reported recently that just 55% of 2011’s graduating law class had found full-time, long-term jobs that require bar passage nine months after they graduated.

Would-be lawyers have already begun to take the hint: the Law School Admissions Council reports that the number of law school applicants dropped 15.6% last year and is down 24.1% over the past two years. That might go some way to explaining why 10 law schools are planning to reduce the size of their first-year classes.

If you think this looks like the beginning of a shrinking legal profession, you’re probably right. But at the very least, it’s a parallel trend traveling in the same direction and leading to essentially the same destination: the BigLaw lawyer employment engine is revving down.

Mergers, even among global giants, aren’t going to change the fact that fewer lawyers will be required to perform legal tasks. Massive as they might be, newly merged super-firms will still be smaller than they would have been even a few years ago. We might even start to see law firm mergers more closely resemble mergers in the corporate world: amalgamations undertaken chiefly to increase efficiency and productivity, frequently followed by mass employee redundancies and the closing of surplus offices.

The lesson for law firms is this: Size, measured in the number of lawyers at least, is not an end in itself. Big is fine; needlessly big is not. There are new and often better ways for firms to deliver legal services that don’t require the contributions of a full-time lawyer. That will become clear to large firms in the coming months and years, and it will have devastating short-term consequences for lawyer employment as the impact is fully realized.

How can law firms go about this streamlining process? Here are five strategies:

1. Rethink the purpose of associates. Leverage alone won’t be a good enough reason to maintain vast grazing herds of associates, not with lower-cost options available on the market and with fixed fees taking more work from the billable hour. In the same way, the inefficient and arbitrary “tournament” approach to grooming future partners through attrition has no place in a modern enterprise. The primary purpose of associates will (once again) become to create future partners and leaders — and firms will not require nearly so many associates for that.

2. Scale back the accumulation of partners. Dewey & LeBoeuf presents a tragic portrait of a firm that engaged in the undisciplined and irresponsible pursuit of ever more partners at ever higher remuneration with no long-term plan. Smart firms will come to demand the highest standards for free-agent acquisitions, applying to potential new “rainmakers” the fundamental business truth that past performance is no predictor of future success. As a general rule, most big firms are over-partnered to a far greater degree than they are over-associated.

3. Invest seriously in low-cost performance options. Class and cultural blinders are the primary obstacles to big firms’ acceptance that excellent work can be produced outside their hallowed halls. Contract lawyers in smaller centers and LPO lawyers in foreign jurisdictions are much smarter and harder-working than most firms have been willing to believe. Automated contract programs, expert knowledge applications and innovative dispute elimination services are exceptionally powerful and reliable. Pedigree is overrated.

4. Re-engineer workflow. The first three steps lead inevitably to the fourth, which in some ways is the most important. Large firms that insist on producing legal services as if it were 1992 will be unable to give up their addiction to having armies of lawyers on hand. Smart firms will create templates and processes to regulate their systems and activities. They’ll implement legal project management as a philosophy, not just a cost-management measure. They’ll change how they work, and thereby change the nature of the resources needed to perform it.

5. Partner with in-house clients. There’s no point in a large firm trying to transform itself in splendid isolation from its paying customers. In-house law departments are dying to hear that their outside counsel are committed to practicing law differently and more effectively. These clients are going to keep more work for themselves regardless; the firm might as well be part of the process, perhaps through long-term lawyer secondments or client-specific online applications. Strong client ties are far more valuable than adding yet another body at yet another desk.

Clients already know that sheer size is no substitute for value or effectiveness in a law firm. Nor, law firms are finally coming to realize, is it a substitute for being excellent or profitable. The legal profession’s fetish about size is drawing to a close, thanks to advances in technology and alternative resources for legal proficiency. It’ll soon be time to find another word for “BigLaw” — it’s just not about size anymore.

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.


  1. Christopher G. Hill

    Interesting take Jordan. I had no idea that large firms like the ones mentioned are catching on to the market. This can only be good for clients.

  2. John Grimley

    Great piece. I think the future of law will also reach to law firms retaining or becoming subsidiaries of – outside sales operations akin to those that sell insurance products. Also, this presents a great opportunity for nimble, entrepreneurial law firms.

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