A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Is the demand for legal booming?

In Articles, Commentary on 1 February 2018 at 8:14 am

The Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor report on the state of the Australian legal market indicates that overall market demand for major law firms has declined by around 10% over the past five years.

The IBIS report indicates a legal market declining in real terms – 1.9% nominal annual growth from 2012 to 2017, and 1.4% pa growth predicted for the next five years.

The Australian legal press is filled daily with messages of doom and gloom.

But what if we’ve got this all wrong? What if we’re being misled by inaccurate reporting, or as some might say, “fake news”?

There are five growth areas that I don’t think are accurately reflected in the market data that is reported:

  1. Growth of in-house lawyers
  2. Growth of foreign boutiques
  3. Growth of law companies
  4. Growth of legal imports
  5. Growth of bush lawyering.

By adding this direct and indirect demand to reported data, one might conclude that overall market demand is actually booming. If that is the case, the market is fragmenting even more rapidly than people realise with the large incumbent providers, as a whole, rapidly losing relative market share.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Source: apartmentlist.com

#1 Growth of in-house lawyers

In June 2017, the NSW Law Society published a report that revealed a 59% increase in corporate in-house lawyers and 34% in government lawyers from 2011 to 2016:

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 8.56.45 am

The increase of 6,222 employed in-house solicitors roughly equates to 1.4 million of production hours per annum. Even if this data is half right, the numbers are staggering.

ACC analysis indicates that some of this demand has been driven by insourcing, but it has also grown from a general increase in regulatory and risk issues as well as commercial, employment, real estate and operational matters. It is worth recalling that Australia holds the world record for the longest period of recession-free growth for a developed country and the outlook is strong.

#2 Growth of foreign boutiques

The revenues of large foreign firms like Allens-Linklaters, KWM, HSF, Ashurst, K&L Gates and Dentons are captured in the traditional metrics because most have involved a merger or an alliance with a large established domestic firm.

What’s missing from market reports like Peer Monitor are the 21 new foreign boutiques now competing mostly at the top-end of the market. These are firms with 30 or fewer partners with a premium focused offering. Examples include Clyde & Co, Jones Day, Squire Patton Boggs, Pinsent Masons, PwC, KPMG and White & Case. Carlyle Kingswood data suggests there are now over 225 partners working in this segment, roughly accounting for $350 million of annual fees.

#3 Growth of law companies

Australia’s Eric Chin is famous for coining the term NewLaw to describe legal startups. This descriptor is evolving into ‘law companies’, as explained by Mark Cohen in his recent post. Firms in this category include Elevate, Axiom, Lawyers on Demand, LexVoco, Keypoint, Unison, LegalVision, Hive, Helix, Nexus, Pangea 3, LawPath and Bespoke.

Data suggests law companies have grown their share of the outsourced corporate legal market from around 3% to 10% over the past five years.

Again, I wonder how much of this spend is include in official indicators tracking legal demand in Australia? Many of these companies have non-traditional employment arrangements, they engage a number of non-lawyers to deliver legal services, and they combine both local and overseas talent.

#4 Growth of legal imports

The chart below breaks down the $A15.4 Billion worth of Chinese investment in Australia by industry in 2016. Interestingly the figure was only $A2.1 Billion in 2007. One could provide similar statistics for the USA, Japan, UK, Germany, Singapore, etc.

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 11.28.43 am

It’s a safe bet to assume that legal advice was necessary on a significant proportion of the transactions that facilitated this investment. I think it’s also a safe bet to say that a lot of this legal advice was not provided by Australian lawyers. In a sense, this is Australian-based demand for legal advice is not accounted for because it’s being provided by offshore advisors, i.e. it is being imported.

#5 Growth of bush lawyering

Australia is becoming more and more regulated. One proxy measure of this is the pages of legislation passed per year. The chart below shows the trend in Canberra. A similar story is evident in all the states.

109843d0f643df51c329ca02dbc526e5

Developing systems to comply with these regulations and managing breaches usually requires expert legal advice. My guess is that a significant number of organisations don’t seek this advice but just wing it through a combination of ignorance, ignoring and bush-lawyering.

One could argue that this demand for legal services is actually non-demand. However, this is potential revenue lost by a combination of providers perceived to be expensive and consumer disregard.

What if I’m right

There are some pretty profound implications if we’re being misled by inaccurate reporting and the overall market is actually booming.

For established traditional Australian law firms, some of the takeaways are:

    • There might be more value in collaborating than competing to fight the threat of the newer entrants;
    • They should be making much more of the significant growth in foreign investment and government regulation;
    • They should be exploring new models to service those with atypical legal needs;
    • They might want to hedge their bets by investing in law companies and/or newer growth segments; and
    • Market fragmentation usually means less tolerance for mediocrity. There will be more winners and losers and a greater premium for sound strategic leadership and followership.

 

For industry bodies and professional associations, they need to:

  • Measure their industry more accurately and reliably;
  • Develop strategies to reduce legal imports; and
  • Help transfer latent demand to real demand.

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: