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Sunset Of The Traditional Law Firm Model

The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute recently released their 2017 Report on the State of the Legal Industry. ‘The Georgetown Report,’ as it’s commonly referred to, confirms that corporate legal buyers are directing more work away from large law firms, electing to take it in-house or to legal service providers (read: alternatives sources to the traditional law firm partnership model). The Report provides a broad range of data confirming weaknesses in the traditional model: flat demand for law firm services in a market with growing demand; shrinking leverage (one of the cornerstones of the BigLaw model); reduced realization; intense competition; and the failure of most law firms to innovate in a market demanding it. The Report also cites growing market segmentation among law firms with about 20 pulling away from the pack once collectively called ‘the AmLaw 200’ and later ‘AmLaw 100.’  It also notes that clients are increasingly sending work “down market” to smaller firms with specific expertise and lower rates.

The Report’s headline grabber is ‘the death of traditional billable hour pricing’ over the past decade and ‘the widespread client insistence on budgets (with caps) for both transactional and litigation matters.’ This conclusion overlooks an even bigger item– many of those matters are no longer assigned to law firms in the first instance. Example: Shell Oil has formed a global in-house litigation team for the bulk of the company’s largest litigation cases and recently handled a  multi-billion dollar corporate portfolio divestiture in-house.

The eye-popping profit-per-partner (PPP) numbers that persist for many firms—something not specifically mentioned in the Georgetown Report– create a false-positive image of their fiscal health. High PPP has been achieved principally by internal cost slashing including staff cuts, reducing real estate overhead, and other measures. It also involves thinning the equity ranks and jettisoning ‘service’ partners who are highly valuable to clients but a potential drag on PPP. The Report notes that firm internal cost cutting has gone as far as it can go, suggesting that PPP at most firms will begin to dip. That will only fuel the lateral frenzy and add to the long-term instability of most firms. PPP was long the glue that bound firms together. Now, it is a vulnerability for all but the fiscally strongest in a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ marketplace.

The Georgetown Report also cites, ‘erosion of the traditional law firm franchise,’ a euphemism for ‘clients no longer need large law firms to handle many legal tasks.’ Erosion of leverage–equity partners atop a pyramid of other lawyers billing lots of hours at high and non-discounted rates, and ‘market segmentation’—a few elite firms distancing themselves from the pack– are additional trends cited by the Report and supported by its data. The inescapable conclusion is that most large firms are confronting an existential crisis that demands an aggressive response lest they experience a collective ‘Kodak moment.’ So far, most firms have been at best reactive and at worst static to the rapidly changing market. That’s one reason why in-house legal departments and service providers now account for nearly half of total legal spend.

 There’s More to It Than That

There are other, more fundamental and systemic reasons why legal buyers are turning away from traditional law firms. For a long time, firms monopolized the supply side of legal expertise when that was the only element of legal delivery. Consumers effectively had no viable, scalable, and ‘safe’ alternative supply sources. Also, legal fees were a trifling line item on the corporate budget. That’s changed, of course– especially during the past decade. Legal delivery is now a three-legged stool supported by legal, IT, and process expertise. Law firms remain strong on legal expertise but that’s just part of the equation. Plus, the dramatic rise in their cost has far outpaced other goods and services at a time when legal expense—like virtually every other line item—is closely scrutinized in a business climate that demands ‘better, faster, cheaper.’ And consider that the urban myth that ‘work performed by law firms is bespoke’ has been debunked. Disaggregation—the creation of a legal supply chain—is now standard fare as buyers commonly engage more than one source for individual matters or portfolios that were once handled start-to-finish by law firms.

Corporate legal departments and service providers have stepped in to fill the law firm vacuum. They tend to be more innovative than law firms, utilizing technology and process far more effectively than firms that remain loathe to provide a meaningful seat at the management to anyone but (rainmaker) lawyers. Corporate legal departments and service providers, in contrast, commonly function as corporations, not fiefdoms. Their DNA more closely resembles clients than law firms do, and they accord technologists, process experts, and others essential to the legal delivery commensurate status and rewards.

There are several other systemic challenges confronting traditional law firms–minimal capital invested in research and development; an economic model that rewards inefficiency more than efficiency; limited understanding of the increasingly complex business of multinational clients—especially contrasted with in-house counsel; and a failure to appreciate that “legal” problems are—from the client perspective—“business challenges”

Why Don’t Law Firms Retrofit Their Model? 

 The Georgetown data confirms that the traditional law firm model no longer dominates the legal marketplace, nor does it align well with its direction. This begs the question: ‘why don’t firms retrofit their model?’ Simple answer: there exists an economic conflict between aging equity partners ‘running the table’ and the next generation that is beginning to appreciate its vulnerability. Translation: don’t expect the old guard at law firms to morph into innovators, especially where to do so would require them to be the largest investors in a model with no residual equity. The absence of real residual equity value at law firms is yet another nail in its coffin. Contrast this, for example, with senior in-house counsel that have a very significant financial interest in the long-term success of the enterprise—even after they retire.

In-House Legal Departments and Service Providers Have Limitations, Too

In-house legal departments are more palliative than cure for the vacuum left by law firms. While they continue to expand in size, influence, and portfolios, their cost is rapidly escalating, too. There is also an inherent conflict in the dual role in-house counsel is asked to serve—defenders as well as business partners of the company. This is not to say that equipoise cannot be achieved, but there is risk, too. Outside counsel can serve a valuable role in mitigating this potential risk factor–but there is no longer need for the entire traditional firm model to achieve this. Firm lawyers can be cherry-picked to serve this purpose.

Likewise, service providers bring a great deal to the table, but they too have limitations—especially in the U.S. where the current regulatory scheme prohibits joint ownership between lawyers and anyone other than lawyers. Service providers, on their own, cannot ‘engage in the practice of law’ even though they perform many of the same functions as law firms. Apart from U.S. regulatory hurdles—for which there are workarounds—is the ‘stigma’ many top lawyers feel for taking their talents anywhere other than law firms, corporate legal departments,  government, or public interest groups. This will change over time, but it’s a tough sell for legal service providers to attract elite legal talent to complement their IT, process, and stable of other experts that are the ingredients in the legal delivery stew.

Wanted: A Safe, Scalable, Cost-Effective and Integrated Delivery Model 

What’s missing in the current legal landscape is a safe, scalable, cost-effective, legal delivery model that integrates the legal supply chain. There are many different structures and models that would accomplish this objective– the most likely being a Clearspire ‘two company model’ where a law firm enters into a bundled services agreement with a legal service provider. Another iteration might involve a corporate legal department breaking off and rebranding itself as a law firm that is paired with legal operations capability, either in-house or via an established outside service provider. Additional elite legal talent would be readily available because there will soon be a diaspora of lawyers looking for a new model and a new home that aligns better with their interests as well as their clients’.

Conclusion

The Georgetown Report confirms where the market is. The more interesting question is where it’s headed. Doubtless, new delivery models will soon appear that better align the interests of the three principal stakeholders in legal delivery: (1) lawyers, paraprofessionals, and other experts that perform the work; (2) the delivery entity that bundles it; and (3) clients. My bet is that a new legal delivery paradigm will emerge that will transform the fraying legal guild into a 21st-century model that will benefit clients, lawyers, and society. Stay tuned….

This Article originally appeared on Forbes.com and is featured here with Author permission.

Mark A. Cohenhttp://legalmosaic.com/
MARK has had a long and distinguished career as a lawyer and innovator in the legal vertical. His unique perspective on the legal industry is derived from roles he has had as an internationally recognized civil trial lawyer, legal entrepreneur, early large-scale adopter of technology for the delivery of legal services, partner at one of the largest law firms, founder and managing partner of a national litigation boutique firm, outside General Counsel, federally appointed Receiver of a large, international aviation parts business with operations on four continents, (Adjunct) Distinguished Lecturer of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, writer, speaker, and acknowledged global thought leader at the intersection of law, business, and technology. Mark currently serves as CEO of Legalmosaic, a company that provides strategic consulting to service providers, consumers, investors, educators, and new entrants into the legal vertical. Prior to founding Legalmosaic, Mark was Co-Founder of Clearspire, a groundbreaking legal service provider whose disruptive, proprietary IT platform and reengineered legal model garnered international acclaim. This followed his founding of Qualitas,an early entrant into the LPO space. Earlier in his career, Mark was an internationally recognized civil trial lawyer. He was an award-winning Assistant U.S. Attorney and the youngest partner of Finley Kumble prior to founding his own multi-city litigation boutique firm. Mark is widely known for his blogging and speaking on a range of legal topics focused on changes, challenges, and opportunities in the current legal landscape. Mark maintains an active speaking scheduled, both domestic and international. He has been a keynote speaker at Harvard Law School’s Speaker Series, Reinvent Law, 3M’s Global Legal Alignment Summit, LegalZoom, University College London, and, in May 2017, The German Bar Association’s Annual Conference. He writes a weekly column for Forbes and has been published in major legal and business media sources around the globe. Mark has been active in sports and the arts throughout his life, and this is reflected in his writing and speaking on legal issues where he frequently makes references to those topics. He enjoys mentoring students and young lawyers and is known for his colorful sense of humor and candor.

4 COMMENTS

  1. It’s not just the law firm models that need to change.

    Looking at three occupations, doctors, lawyers, and engineers; each occupation changed when our clients gained internet access to our industry knowledge.

    Patients with certain diseases and conditions are now just as informed or more so than their doctors on the latest research and developments.

    Clients are now more versed in the laws and regulations from a high level and just need some course adjustments on what they’re doing.

    Clients are now googling solutions and training, limiting billable engineers to check their work and fill in the gaps.

    A lot of business models need to change based on the level of knowledge each of our clients have at their finger tips. And there is a new service that we’re providing; “uneducation” where we help our clients unlearn invalid concepts and ideas.

  2. Mark: In my corporate life I’ve used both large and small law firms, as well as in house. At one time we had three in house lawyers. In my experience in house makes a lot of sense if most of the legal issues are in a narrow field. Examples could be contract law or real estate law. The wider the range of needs for legal expertise the less effective in house becomes, really only functioning as a legal focal point and coordinator.

    The other issue is the licensing requirements to practice law in various states. This causes even large firms to farm out much of a client’s legal work.

    Many small to mid-sized companies and most start ups don’t realize that legal rates are negotiable to a degree. Many law firms are only beginning to comprehend that getting a promising company on their client rolls is important for the future revenue stream of the law firm.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ken. I think there is enormous opportunity for tech savvy, process driven, and client-centric firms to penetrate the companies that you focus on. Most large firms focus on the F500, and they are increasingly seeking options other than BigLaw. In contrast, smaller companies–many of whom have a considerable amount of legal work–don’t often “insource.” This provides opportunity for law firms and service providers.

      • One of the biggest mistakes I see entrepreneurs make when starting a venture is not getting legal expertise up front. $250-500 per hour simply isn’t in the budget up front so, they wing it often resulting in very bad leases, organizational documents, and partnership agreements.

        Law firms need to be more flexible with their fee structure for these start ups, thereby building their client base for future years.

        But, as you note, the big law firms want the F500 on their client list, not Mary’s gift shop.

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