A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

The end of the club

In Articles, Commentary on 25 June 2018 at 10:09 am

First published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 June 2018

A ‘club’ is a Tier 2 full-service firm of individual practitioners who enjoy each other’s company. It is a nice, collegiate, shared-office environment where partners enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy and welcome the occasional cross-selling opportunity.

And the club, as a business model, is about to die.

The principal reason for its demise is that most of the individual practitioners that make up the club will not be able to compete. Unless their expertise is unquestionably superior or they have welded-on client relationships, these solo specialists will start to lose out to a combination of freelancers, platforms, networks, focus and one-firm firms.

Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 9.15.54 am

Source: strikingly.com

Solo specialists versus Freelancers

Many of Australia’s Tier 1 law firms thinned their partner ranks during the 2010’s (a trend reversed in 2018). This was done through de-equitisation, early retirements and forced redundancy. Ashurst, for example, had 186 Australian partners in July 2013 and 142 in July 2016.

A number of these very accomplished practitioners set up shop as high-end legal freelancers. Using sophisticated cloud-based software, a laptop and a phone, these lawyers have next to zero overheads and the flexibility and agility to practice where and when they like. There is simply no contest when matched to a Tier 2 practitioner constrained by firm pricing policies, high office rents and administration expenses.

Solo specialists versus Platforms

HWL Ebsworth and Mills Oakley stand out as two very successful high-growth platform firms. Their strategy is about aggressively acquiring partners with portable practices and offering them incomes more directly aligned to their total financial contribution, both direct and referred. These firms have strong operational disciplines and lean back-offices. They are well led with partners focused less on office politics and more on things that matter, that is, their clients and staff. HWL prides itself on offering partner chargeout rates lower than many Tier 1 and 2 firms and fixing these rates over time.

These platform firms run harder and faster than the clubs. The energy and discipline they bring to the market gives them a real edge. And if they come across a high-flying solo-specialist in a sleepy club, they’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse.

Solo specialists versus Networks

The past five years have seen the emergence of a number of network law firms and legal staff companies. Examples include Lawyers on Demand, LexVoco and Crowd&Co. There are also a number of legal staff companies aligned with established law firms, such as Corr’s Orbit, Allens’ Adapt and Minters’ Flex. One standout element of these networks is they have a very small team of full-time staff and only contract lawyers to work when there’s a confirmed fixed-fee client assignment.

The toe-to-toe analysis of networks versus solo-specialist yields very similar conclusions to the Freelancer and Platform models.

Solo specialists versus Focus firms

Focus and boutique firms specialise in a narrow range of worktypes or client sectors. Two standout examples in this category are SBA Law, a Melbourne-based corporate boutique, and Thoroughbred Legal, a general practice firm focused on the thoroughbred racing industry.

These firms position themselves as having deep expertise, knowledge and critical mass, and a service delivery model 100% attuned to the needs of their target market.

Beaton data points to technical expertise and understanding of client industry as key drivers of client choice. As such, focus firms will almost always out-credential and out-compete Tier 2 practitioners largely competing on their own.

Solo specialists versus One-firm firms

David Maister coined the term “one-firm firm” to describe a full-service firm where,

  • the firm brand is stronger than individual partner brands,
  • the firm has a ‘house style’ and delivers consistent quality across the board,
  • the firm’s culture is deeply collaborative in regard to sharing clients and resources, and
  • the firm is prepared to invest in new profit growth initiatives without prejudicing individual practitioners.

One-firm firm’s competitive advantage comes from wider ‘institutionalised’ client relationships and the ability to bring many minds to solve complex client problems.

Over the past decade, many larger clients have sought to reduce the size of their panels and form strategic partnerships with fewer (one-firm) firms. This procurement trend effectively locks-out the solo-specialist in a collegiate club.

The preferred strategic option

Over the next five years, some clubs will fold, some will fracture into a series of boutiques and some will be acquired. Most will try to address their situation by trying to become one-firm firms. The leadership challenge of this transformation is huge, and the risk of losing star partners and associates along the way is high. Unfortunately, I expect only a small number will be able to make the necessary changes and survive.

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