Some years ago, when I was working for the Canadian Bar Association, real estate lawyers in Canada became deeply troubled about losing their lead role in residential real estate transactions. They complained that they undertook a great deal of work and expense to ascertain the validity of title, yet they made only a few hundred dollars per transaction, while realtors and title insurance companies did much less (in the lawyers’ view) and made much more. Many of the strategies drawn up to change this state of affairs aimed (ineffectively, as it turned out) to restore the lawyer as the “quarterback” of the real estate deal.
My problem with that approach, as I expressed it at the time, was this: I don’t think lawyers are the quarterbacks in this market. Quarterback is the most powerful position in football, a big-picture strategist, personnel manager, and elite performer all rolled into one. But most lawyers are tacticians, not strategists, and they prefer neither to manage nor to be managed. More likely, I said, we’re the third-down fullback called on to blast through the line in a short-yardage situation, or the speedy wide receiver who goes deep on 3rd-and-22 to make a big play. We’re specialist performers who wait on the sidelines until we’re called upon to do one thing really well.
I was reminded of that observation this week when I read a column by Anthony Hilton in the UK’s Evening Standard with the galvanizing title, “Why their profession’s failures mean lawyers don’t win top City jobs.” Among his critiques of the commercial bar, Hilton had this to say:
[L]awyers have allowed themselves to be pushed further and further down the food chain, and away from the seat of power. In today’s commercial world, when there is a deal to be done, it is picked over by investment bankers, brokers and public relations consultants — all of whom have a share of the ear of the chief executive. Then when all the high-level stuff has been sorted by these experts, the package is tossed to the lawyer with instructions to sort it out and make it presentable. …
[L]awyers have lost the glamour, the access and the special status that came with having opinions worth listening to. They have allowed themselves to be commoditised and to become the last port of call. They have allowed some of their best brains to move in-house as general counsel in the biggest companies, taking the interesting legal advisory work with them. …
Now, when Hilton speaks of “lawyers” here, he means the private Bar, members of law firms engaged in private practice. But of course, “lawyers” are also working in-house, as the very corporate counsel he refers to here. They’re serving as the executive-level advisors and risk management experts in corporations’ corridors of power.
So it’s not a question of “lawyers” per se losing their power and value. It’s a question of where lawyers need to go these days if they want to develop real power and deliver real value in corporate affairs. Hilton suggests they need to go to the client side — and that, when you think about it, is an astounding turn of events. Remember when law firm partners would look down dismissively on those lawyers who “couldn’t cut it” in practice and had to take refuge in-house? It wasn’t all that long ago.
I don’t think there’s any question that power (and therefore prestige) is increasingly accumulating on the buyer’s side of the legal service relationship. How much power? Consider another column, this one by Alex Novarese of Legal Business in the UK, who was reflecting on whether anything in the legal market really posed a genuine threat to the world’s most elite law firms. He concluded that there was such a threat:
[I]t comes from those paying the bills, the clients. The sustained development of in-house teams means major bluechips already have legal teams that resemble global law firms in their breadth and resource. … The drain of good people from private practice to in-house has become a feedback loop and a dangerous one for law firms as it remakes the legal industry. In the UK, more than one in four commercial lawyers works in-house. On current trends, it is not outlandish to imagine a 50/50 ratio in 20 years. What happens to the conventional buy/sell dynamic when the clients have as many providers in-house as externally? Why go to a law firm at all?
That last question is remarkable simply for the fact that it can reasonably be asked. And as the world’s largest legal buyers build more and more internal legal capacity, there’s no obvious answer.
Google’s in-house law department, for example, employs 1,000 lawyers to focus solely on legal issues, which is more scale and expertise than the vast majority of law firms can muster. But Google, like many other companies, also maintains a Legal Operations team, which handles legal technology, internal operations, and interestingly, “vendor management” — and the “vendor” category includes outside counsel. Law firms, increasingly, aren’t going to report to the General Counsel — they’re going to report to the Director of Vendor Management. What does that tell us about how power and prestige are shifting?
If you’re looking for the quarterback in the corporate legal market right now, I think you need to go visit Legal Ops. The skyrocketing growth of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium suggests that Legal Ops will continue to take on more power and responsibility in the corporate legal services relationship. And as power continues to accumulate on the client’s operational side, a major change is occurring in how corporate clients view legal matters.
The ongoing trend towards insourcing legal work, and the consequent decline in the amount of work sent to law firms, confirm that corporations are now building up their internal legal infrastructure. But they’re not just adding more lawyers — that would amount to simply replicating law firms inside the corporation, which is not a smart way to go about it. Large corporations are instead re-engineering their legal infrastructure towards a new model, one in which Legal doesn’t seek to address every legal issue within the company (which is an impossible task in massive organizations). Instead, the new infrastructure aims to help the company and its people solve legal problems themselves — or better yet, anticipate legal risks and thereby avoid problems altogether.
That’s a significant strategic shift, because it re-envisions the role of “legal problems.” Law firms tend to regard legal problems as part of their inventory, providing solutions to those problems on an hourly basis. But corporations view “legal problems” as an obstacle to business continuity and corporate profit, and therefore as something to be minimized and eliminated. In this model, legal expertise reduces friction and therefore cost. It’s not something you buy, it’s something you integrate into your business to help it run better.
“There are no legal problems,” said Cisco’s Mark Chandler recently. “There are only business problems.” I don’t think that’s entirely correct. But it doesn’t matter what I think — it matters what the general counsel of one of the world’s largest corporations thinks. And he’s redefining legal issues away from law firms and towards the company’s legal infrastructure.
No, I’m not saying this is “the death of BigLaw,” obviously. What I’m suggesting is that the large, full-service law firm — the traditional business platform for private-sector lawyers serving corporate and institutional clients — is entering a period of existential crisis. What purpose will law firms serve in this market? Why will clients go to them at all? What do they offer that the buyer cannot either develop and deploy internally or acquire elsewhere at a competitive price?
I’ve heard it said that 80% of corporate legal work is going to either stay in-house or be directed to lower-cost third-party specialists, with the remaining 20% of high-end, high-stakes legal tasks (the “bespoke” work) delegated to outside counsel. But law firms developed as destinations for 100% of that work, and they have the size, overhead costs, and hierarchical structure to prove it. What does it look like when a supplier loses 80% of its business? How do you cope with that?
We’re entering uncharted territory here, and there are possibilities arising that we’ve not considered before. Maybe full-service law firms that performed every aspect of a legal matter, no matter how trifling or routine, were a temporary stop on the evolutionary road of legal services. Maybe such law firms are vestigial and will eventually fall away — to be replaced by smaller expert boutiques where legal shoppers go for occasional splurges, while the rote work that supported their predecessors is either claimed by software and systems or is performed by clients in the ordinary course of events.
Is that the future for BigLaw? Are large law firms destined to be simply a collection of third-down specialists, niche experts called in to perform a high-value task once in a while? And if so, is there necessarily anything wrong with that?
I really don’t know the answers to these questions. But what I do know is that law firms — at least, as they are currently owned, structured, and managed — are in the process of losing their status as the legal market’s power brokers. The center of gravity in this market is shifting to clients, and it’s not going back. The law firm is now just one more resource among many, a particularly fussy and expensive resource called in only when absolutely necessary. And someone else is going to decide what “necessary” looks like.
The last, ominous, word on this goes to Alex Novarese: “what your clients want is not always good for you. What your clients want can clean you out.”