A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Why premium law firms are falling behind in a downward trajectory

In Articles, Commentary on 6 April 2019 at 4:54 pm

Full text of my op-ed that first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 5 April 2019.

The recent Hayne sugar hit can’t hide the fact that the 10-year trend line for legal work done by Australia’s premium firms is on a downward trajectory.

AFR oped 5 April 2019 copy

AFR print edition

One conclusion to draw from this data is that the market for legal work is flat or declining. Another way to look at is that the total market for legal is booming, but the premium firms – those law firms selling their deep expertise and charging higher fees – are losing market share.

There are three key reasons to suggest the latter conclusion is more likely correct:

First is the growth of in-house lawyers. NSW Law Society data revealed a 59 per cent increase in corporate in-house lawyers across Australia from 2011 to 2016.

Second is the growth of  ‘alternative legal service providers’ (ALSPs). Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute recently reported that ALSPs recorded global revenues of $US10.7 billion ($15.04 billion) in 2017, with compound annual growth rate of 12.7 per cent. ALSPs include firms doing litigation and investigation support, legal research, document review, e-discovery and regulatory risk and compliance.

Third is the growth of regulatory risk and compliance. Over the past 10 years, the Commonwealth Government has introduced roughly 5500 pages of new legislation each year. For every major new regulation there is usually the need for strategic and legal advice; the design and implementation of new compliance systems; and support and investigations when there are breaches. It appears that the demand for legal-related regulatory work has mostly been satisfied by accountants and a range regulatory specialists and software providers.

Vacating low-margin segments

A kind interpretation of the premium law firms decline in market share is that firms have deliberately vacated the segments they’ve perceived to be dominated by low-margin commodity work. By focusing on specialist higher-priced work, firms have been able to maintain partner profits and keep the essence of their business models intact.

A less glowing view is that these law firms have been blindsided by the new entrants, in-house lawyers, the accountants and software providers – and that they are slowly losing the battle of being the most relevant legal advisers to companies and government organisations. They are become niche specialists called in only when there is a really complex legal issue or a dispute and/or where the client organisation wants to transfer risk.

At the recent Managing Partners Forum, Anthony Kearns of Herbert Smith Freehills stated the top concerns of many his firm’s general counsel (GC) clients were more managerial than strictly legal.

They included issues such as:

  • How can we enhance the value of legal to our business?
  • How can we enhance the performance of the legal supply chain?
  • How can we build a platform of influence within our organisation?
  • How can we meaningfully contribute to the development and delivery of our organisation’s strategy?
  • How do we do more for less?

Gap for Big 4

His thesis was that if law firms didn’t start to help their GC clients with these problems, then the Big 4 and other consultants would.

On the surface, it would seem law firms might not have the expertise to assist. But on closer examination most of the larger firms are full of highly specialised HR, IT and marketing and operations people that are highly skilled in dealing with lawyers. At the moment, they’re just facing inwards not outwards.

So, our premium law firms are facing another strategic choice whether to accept this opportunity to help their GC clients, or leave it to other advisers to fill the void?

My prediction is that a small number of premium firms will say “yes” and pursue these and other adjacent business opportunities with vigour. The majority will stick to their knitting and retreat to what they know best – being legal specialists.

There are some interesting times ahead.

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