A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Not quite the life of Harvey Spector

In Articles, Commentary on 2 February 2019 at 2:40 pm

Full text of my op-ed published in the Australian Financial Review on 1 February 2019.

The Australian Financial Review December 2018 Partnership Survey is fascinating for what it shows and what it doesn’t show. On the surface it reveals overall market growth as a result of the Haine Royal Commission, major infrastructure projects, real estate investment, regulatory change, private client wealth transfer, litigation funding and class action defence. It also reveals the rapid ascent of the law divisions of the Big 4 to a total of 87 partners.

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AFR print edition

However, the AFR Partnership Survey doesn’t show the names of four major firms that, for all intents and purposes, failed: Henry Davis York, Dibbs Barker, TressCox and Kemp Strang.

Paradoxically the latter firms weathered all the ups and downs over the past decades but failed in a rapidly growing market. Their demise can be traced to a combination of competitor aggressiveness, poor market focus and internal instability. The loss of key rainmakers to highly-acquisitive firms HWL Ebsworth had an immediate back-pocket impact on their high fixed cost business model. Profits took a further hit by a primary focus by some on commoditised banking, property and government work with a non-commodity low scale service delivery model. Coping with all these pressures with consensus-based decision-making significantly hindered rather than helped.

A broken talent supply model

Many of the law firms interviewed for the AFR survey indicated that they will be significantly increasing their graduate intake in 2019. The data revealed a rough ratio of 0.6 new graduates for every existing partner. The total of partners listed in the survey, plus the no-show Minter Ellison, is 3,560. At the 0.6 ratio we’re talking roughly 2,200 new graduates to be apprenticed at the elite level in 2019. Add another 1,000 for quality commercial and plaintiff firms and organisations not listed in the survey and we get a total of 3,200.

Australia’s 39 law schools produce around 8,000 graduates per annum. This means an immediate attrition rate of 60%. And 2019 is a boom year for graduate hiring.

Graduates then join our top law firms expecting to be Harvey Spector (or your favourite TV law hero) on Day 20 and find out that it’s not so glamorous. In fact, if one takes indicative employee experience data from Glassdoor.com.au, we see that many find it pretty average (ratings out of 5 for the top 5 firms):

·      HWL Ebsworth: 2.5

·      Clayton Utz: 3.6

·      King & Wood Mallesons: 3.1

·      Herbert Smith Freehills: 3.7

·      Norton Rose Fulbright: 3.4

Within three years of working in a major firm, a number of disillusioned trainees leave and seek employment elsewhere. This ultimately results in a shrinking talent pool of quality mid-level 3 to 7-year PQE lawyers.

Paradoxically, we have 60% over-supply of legal graduates but a significant shortage of trained lawyers. Surely, there must be a better, fairer and more sustainable way to supply top talent to our top firms?

Three strategic questions

There are three strategic questions have taken up thousands of partner decision-making hours across many of the firms listed in the AFR Survey in recent years:

·     Should we join up with a global firm?

·     Should we change our partner remuneration model?

·     How do we differentiate our firm?

Using partner numbers and growth as a proxy for success, the AFR survey reveals that both global and domestic firms are thriving. In the Top 20, we have seven globals and 13 locals (including Minters). It appears that there is a compelling argument that both models work.

The data indicates that there is no correlation with any particular partner remuneration model. Amongst the Top 20 firms we have strong individual performance-based models in firms like HWL Ebsworth and Mills Oakley, lock-step equal share models in firms Hall & Wilcox and Maddocks and hybrids like Allens and Baker & McKenzie.

If market differentiation was a critical success factor then one would expect three or four standout brands, like a Qantas and Virgin in airlines or Coles, Woolworth and IGA in grocery retail. The AFR survey reveals 54 brands with no obvious differentiation within broad peer groups. Given that many of the first listed are highly profitable it appears that there many more important factors that determine success than market differentiation.

In my view, firms would be far better off worrying less about globalisation, rem models and pursuing differentiation. The things that really matter are growing the pie through effective firm and practice leadership, nurturing a strong organisational culture, strategic focus and operational excellence.

The future of law has fewer seats for grads

In Articles, Commentary on 16 September 2018 at 10:53 am

First published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 September 2018

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The pyramid has been the foundation operating model in private practice law firms for the past century. Put simply, a typical pyramid has a partner at the top, one or two senior practitioners below him or her, and then three or four juniors below them. These ratios obviously vary from practice to practice. Leverage and utilisation of the mid and lower levels of the pyramid are the primary profit engines of most firms that charge by time.

More recently there has been much talk of the pyramid losing its bottom left and right corners and becoming a rocket. In this model, there are far fewer junior lawyers and their work substituted by a combination of technology and lower-paid process workers.

The shift towards the rocket model is being driven by both the demand and supply side. Sophisticated clients are stating that they’re happy to pay premium rates for highly-trained senior practitioners to provide strategic advice, insights and judgement, but they’re not willing to pay high rates for junior lawyers to do largely process work.

On the supply side, many NewLaw and legal technology providers have seen the market opportunity to supply legal process services directly to corporate legal departments, to SMEs, to private clients and to law firms. Catalyst Ventures estimated the global LegalTech market to be worth over $US 16 billion in 2017.

There are four major strategic implications for private practice law firms in moving towards the rocket model.

#1 The role of partner

Law firm partners will no longer get by by just being great advisors and team leaders. Project management will become a critical element of the partner role. This means partners need to become adept at configuring the most appropriate mix of legal, process and technology resources to solve a client’s problem. They need to be able to design, prepare, price and sell project plans. To manage projects effectively they will need to be both digitally and economically literate. Teaching old dogs these new tricks will be a very big challenge in many firms.

#2 Size and access to capital

Economies of scale have not traditionally been a key success factor in labour-intensive law firms. New York’s Wachtel Lipton is one of the world’s most successful firms despite being a relatively small single-office partnership.

With the addition of product, process and technology to the business model, firm size and access to low-cost capital may bring specific advantages. These include the ability to wear the risks of R&D, and the ability to invest in high-potential start-ups, technology infrastructure, marketing capability and big data. There is also a defensive argument in that if your firm can’t afford the new bright shiny toys some clients might stop playing with you.

#3 Recruitment and development

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Source: strikingly.com

The pyramid model creates a “tournament” where a large group of aspirants start at the bottom and are encouraged to beat their peers on the way up. The rocket model potentially changes the game with far fewer recruited at the bottom and a philosophy of retention rather than competition. It also challenges the apprenticeship system of learning and development.

Firms will need to make profound strategic choices around whether they ‘make or buy’ talent. If clients are not prepared to pay for junior development and apprenticeship, then some firms may prefer just to poach mid-level staff trained by others. However, this free-rider approach may negatively impact firm culture and ultimately drive up labour costs.

#4 Pricing and measurement

Imagine your firm offers a new compliance solution for its clients that incorporates legal advice, training and a suite of software tools. You cannot bill for the software tools using hourly rates. Charging for the training by the presenter’s time severely undervalues the IP. Tracking staff utilisation in this scenario would not only be meaningless, but dangerous.

It is clear that time-based pricing will be less prevalent in a talent + data + technology world. New pricing models will be required to set, communicate and capture value. This will include things like user license fees, subscriptions and incentivised retainers. What constitutes a “fair price” will become more complex, and need to factor in development costs and risks, IP fungibility, the scale and scope of application, and duration of benefit.

Measurement will shift away from input measures like utilisation towards more outcome measures like client results and clients’ propensity to refer.

In conclusion

The rocket model scenario poses some profound challenges but it also presents many significant opportunities. There is clearly a benefit to be ahead of the curve in thinking through these issues and shaping your future. Not only it is critically important, the journey to becoming closet astronauts can be quite fun.

 

 

 

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