Earlier this week, I was gifted with the opportunity to join Mark Cohen and Mitch Kowalski on a webinar panel addressing a course in law firm management for international exchange students at the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession in Hamburg, Germany. I had the enviable task of opening the panel with remarks around the theme, “What’s ‘broken’ with the classical way of doing things in law?”
In case it’s of any interest to you, especially if you’re just entering the legal profession or on the cusp thereof, I thought I’d pass along my speaking notes, lightly embellished with other observations I offered during the subsequent Q&A period.
Richard Susskind has come up with many observations about why it’s so hard to bring about change in law firms. His most famous observation is one you’ve probably already heard: “It’s very difficult to tell a roomful of millionaires that their business model is wrong.”
I can attest to the truth of that statement, but there’s something important about it that we often overlook: The room is full of millionaires. And they’re millionaires for a reason: Their business model has been insanely successful.
Look at the AmLaw 100, the most profitable law firms in the United States. You have to go down to #75 on the 2018 list before you find a firm where the average equity partner took home less than US$1,000,000. That’s the average. At least half the partners in the top 74 firms took home more than that.
I like my job, I’m pretty good at it, and I’m one of a handful of people in the world who gets paid to do it. But I can tell you that I’m not making a million dollars this year and I don’t anticipate doing so anytime soon.
I think we need to grapple with these millionaires in the room and figure out what they mean for the legal innovation project. This isn’t just because of the obvious difficulty in persuading rich equity partners to abandon a business model that puts Porsches in their garage. It’s also because those Porsches themselves constitute a pretty good argument that the business model is actually right. It has made tens of thousands of lawyers amazingly rich. So what’s the problem?
From my point of view, the problem is twofold.
The first element of the problem is that the law firm business model has been amazingly successful and remunerative only for an exceptionally small number of lawyers. The great majority of private-practice lawyers work in firms of 20 lawyers or fewer, and most of them do not make a million dollars a year. Many of them earn in the low six figures, sure — but so do good electricians and senior civil servants. Quite a few lawyers earn less, sometimes much less, than $100,000 a year. And almost all lawyers, regardless of income, work really hard, sometimes as hard as the ultra-rich ones who are fortunate enough to have clients with very deep pockets.
The financial rewards of law practice are very unevenly distributed. That’s something law students aren’t often told, but it’s important to keep in mind as you start your careers. A few of you will win the fabulous compensation lottery. The rest of you will be over here with us, redeeming the cup-of-coffee consolation prize. The law firm business model is a runaway success only for a select few.
And rest assured, the millionaire lawyers have paid the personal price required to get there. I’ve known law firm partners who kept photos of their spouses and children on their desk, and thought to myself that they do that so they can remember what those people look like.
The second element of the problem, and I think the more significant one, is that the conditions that allowed many of these lawyers to become millionaires are starting to pass away. The traditional law firm model developed in a particular set of market circumstances. A new set of market conditions is now emerging, and the traditional firm is not really set up to deal with them.
This is an important point: It’s not that the law firm business model itself has suddenly stopped making sense. It’s never made that much sense, really. In most markets, working however you liked and charging whatever you wanted while passing on all your costs to your customers is not normally a winning proposition. But it works very well when you, as the supplier of services, enjoy:
- exclusive access to the tools that allow people and businesses to accomplish their goals,
- the exclusive right to sell these services, since you also have the right to regulate new competitors,
- a client base that experiences extreme difficulty when trying to value your services, and
- a client base lacking the knowledge, agency, and confidence to assert themselves with you.
In those circumstances, your biggest problem is not how to make money, but how to spend it all before the next truck full of it is dumped on your lawn.
But those circumstances are changing, and with them, the environment in which legal services are bought and sold is being gradually transformed. Call it “legal climate change,” if you like. The law firm business model is a lovely flower that developed and grew tall in the bright sunshine and gentle breeze of a long, lazy summer. But as they like to say in Westeros, winter is coming.
Here’s what’s the market for legal services has been experiencing over the past decade or so:
- the emergence of new providers of legal services and solutions other than lawyers and law firms,
- the decreasing relevance of regulatory restrictions against “non-lawyer” legal service provision,
- the evolution of alternative fee approaches by which legal value can be identified, measured, and priced, and
- the growth of clients’ confidence in asserting their rights as full participants in their legal solutions.
Lawyers and their law firms need an answer to these challenges. So far, they’ve found very few — mostly, I think, because they haven’t been looking all that hard. The millionaires aren’t looking, I can assure you. They have their eyes squarely focused on their own rapidly approaching finish lines, and they have no interest in accelerating the decline of the machine that prints money for them.
These lawyers are invariably older than average — in some cases, really old. And old people know better than most what the approach of winter feels like. They’re the ones who come up to me following my presentations and say, “I’m really glad I’m retiring in five years.” How delightful for them — I hope they enjoy their remaining years of practice and that lovely summer home in Tuscany they’ve had their eye on. But it doesn’t do much for the younger people they’re going to leave behind.
Soon enough, Richard Susskind’s problem will be solved in the simplest fashion possible: The millionaires will get up and leave the room themselves. Some will go willingly. More of them will go reluctantly, sometimes bitterly. A few of them, to be blunt about it, will be carried out — I’ve heard a number of lawyers “jokingly” say they intend to leave their firms feet-first. The millionaires will move on — though I wouldn’t count on them to be especially gracious about it.
But when that happens, it will leave the room, and the challenge, and the opportunity, to those they’ve left behind — to you. As you contemplate that inheritance, and mull over whether you even want it and what you would do with it if you did, I’d like to offer a few points of advice in closing.
- You don’t have to accept the model that’s been bequeathed to you. It was built by people with different values and priorities than you, in a different world than the ones you’re going to inhabit. Identify and retain the good and the valuable in that model. But be ready to jettison whatever lacks value to you or to your clients, and don’t second-guess yourself once you do.
- You should strive to incorporate other professionals and technicians into your new model, both internally (for productivity and quality) and externally (for client service and value). The future of legal services provision is multi-disciplinary. I don’t really care, to be honest, whether everyone in your room ends up a millionaire. But do not allow everyone in your room to be a lawyer.
- When building your new model and approach to selling legal services, start with clients. Go out and talk to people about their legal affairs, to business owners and managers about their legal challenges, and listen to the answers. Do not build your new models on the bones of the ones that came before you, or on the latest high-minded theory or management fad. Build them in response to the real needs of real people in the real world.
If you build legal services businesses that respond to current and future environments, to the needs of the clients in the markets that you want to serve, then what you build will be successful and sustainable. That’s all anyone can ask — and really, it’s all you’re ever going to need.