We are witnessing the last days of the big law business model.
As recently as a few days ago, The Lawyer in London published a range of prognostications about the shape and fate of large law firms in 2018. For partners in large law firms the articles don't make entirely comfortable reading.
But, The Lawyer, like almost all law firm leaders and observers of large law firms, misses the real point. The reality of 2018 and beyond will turn out to be a great deal worse and much more varied than The Lawyer suggests. And the adversity applies to all law firms not just big ones. Here's why.
'BigLaw' is not about big law firms. It's description of the business model used by firms generating more than 99% of law firm revenues today (that is, it excludes micro and sole practitioner 'firms' and the handful of alternative business model firms).
Let me explain by starting with a little history. In 1819 the firm we know today as Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP was founded in New York. Early in the 20th Century Paul Cravath enunciated the principles of a system to train associates rigorously and promote exclusively from within. To quote the firm's website:
"The rotation path fosters collaboration and eliminates the need for associates to compete for work, clients, training or bonuses. The Cravath System places a premium on efficiency and quality of work that no other firm matches, and it was through this value system, which we still use today, that Cravath created a new model for American law firms."
One should add what Paul Cravath really invented was the foundation for the contemporary BigLaw business model. The modest claim to be "a new model for American law firms" is insufficient. The model rapidly became the basis of the Magic
Circle and White Shoe firms of London and the USA - and every other law firm that strives to learn from and copy the model.
In the great industrial boom of the post World War II era firms seized on the Cravath model and turned it into the BigLaw model. The BigLaw business model enabled the massive growth of firms throughout the Anglo-American world - and has generated the fabled incomes of the equity partners of BigLaw firms for more than 60 years.
BigLaw business model
Six Key Elements for BigLaw
As Beaton Capital analyses it, the BigLaw business model is built on six key elements. These work together and no one is more important than another:
Attraction and training of top legal talent,
'Leveraging' of these full-time lawyers to do the bulk of the work serving clients,
Creation of a tournament to motivate the lawyers to strive to become equity partners (the idea of a tournament is akin to Roman gladiator contests and the subject of a seminal book),
Tight restriction on the number of equity owners,
Structuring as a partnership, and
Charging high hourly rates (which is or at least until very recently has been possible because of the mystique associated with legal advice).
Consequences of the bigLaw business model
The consequences of the BigLaw business model as set out above are these:
Firms treat their lawyers as fixed costs (because of viewing them as a form of sunk cost and the time it takes to bring them to full productivity) plus most other costs are regarded as fixed too,
Firms pay their lawyers high salaries to win in the war to attract the very best talent,
Firms drive high utilisation from their lawyers (although it should be noted Australian and British utilisation is much lower in comparable American firms),
Profit - measured as profit per point of equity on issue - is maximised and as a result the average equity partner in a BigLaw business model firm earns far more than they if they were employed as in-house lawyers,
Profit is taken today and none is retained and as result partnerships have no balance sheets on which to rely for investment or rainy days, and
The clients bear the risk of time-based fee arrangements.
3We use voice conferencing (recorded) for discussions and instructions and video calls when appropriate.
4We dont use snail mail unless we absolutely have to.
5We are very experienced at what we do and how we do it. Your files and our highly secure PMS system are all cloud based. Any of our lawyers can have direct access to your files - so we don't have to work from 9 to 5 and have the firm closed for lunch! We can speak with you on Sunday evenings if you wish!
6We don't do "face to face" meetings unless they are needed (which sometimes they are). We find face to face time very expensive, old fashioned and achieves little.
7We focus on your matter and get the job done on a timely manner without the distractions of unnecessary meetings, discussions or letter based correspondence (we use email).
8Premium - you have access directly to your lawyer and the senior team as well your portal (which form part of our Practice Management System). Most importantly, it's the care passion and expertise that we bring to everything we do- these are the tools - its what we do with the tools that really matters!
Why A New View About Legal Services?
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