A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Five lessons from successful lawyers

In Articles, Commentary on 8 July 2019 at 9:14 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 5 July 2019.

There are five stories worth retelling in comparing the 2019 AFR Partnership Survey to the one reported 10 years ago in July 2009.

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Original AFR article

#1 Resilience

Over the past decade, numerous commentators have predicted the end of BigLaw. Headlines such as, ‘Large law firms are about to have their Kodak moment’, ‘BigLaw is dead. Long live NewLaw’, and ‘Law is ripe for consolidation and disruption’ has attracted readers’ attention, but it is safe to say that these predictions have simply not yet come true.

Analysis of 2009 vs the 2019 Top 30 lists shows:

  • Average firm size is quite similar and there has been very little consolidation. In fact, the largest firm in the land by partner numbers was 297 in 2009 (Minters) compared to 266 in 2019 (HWL Ebsworth).
  • The business models of the Top 30 firms are by and large very similar to those from 10 years prior. They still operate within traditional professional partnerships, they make money through leverage of people, and they price directly or indirectly based on time.
  • While there are a number of global brands in the 2019 list, the Australian-based partnerships of these firms are still broadly the same set of people, putting aside obvious partner promotions and retirements. The vast majority of Australian legal work is still done by Australians in Australia.
  • For all the hype about the Big 4, PwC Legal does not make even it to the Top 30 list in 2019, and the other three are way behind.

#2 The shadow

In July 2009, DLA Phillips Fox had 164 partners and 434 fee-earners. It was the 7th largest firm in the land, the first trans-Tasman integrated partnership (excluding Perth) and a market leader in insurance, government and transport.

Ten years later the AFR Survey shows that DLA Australia has only 70 partners.

UK-based DLP Piper may be very happy with the slimmed-down version that their Australian branch office has become, but it seems amazing to me that nearly 100 of those original Phillips Fox partners who put up their hands to vote ‘yes’ for the DLA tie-up, left the firm they owned within a relatively short time period. Why did so many get it so wrong?

#3 Spot-changers

Much is said about law firms’ and lawyers’ resistance to change but it is worth highlighting the success that two firms are having in changing their gender profile. The 2009 AFR survey revealed that 16.3% of Allens’ partners were female. Ten years later this percentage is 33.1%. Over the same time period, Maddocks has shifted its female partners from 16.9% to 36.6%. Interestingly, the pioneer in this area, Gilbert + Tobin, has seen its proportion stay roughly the same: 36.2% in 2009 versus 35.7% in 2019.

The numbers do not reveal the specific strategies to become more inclusive, but they do show that a real commitment to a goal can make some leopards become less leopard’ish.

#4 The trainers

The firms listed in 2019 AFR survey hired 1,222 graduates over the past financial year. Most of these firms will spend the next three or four years of training these graduates to become independent legal advisers. Back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that this is around 1.5 million hours of training at a rough cost of $90 million.

Assuming one-third leave the profession, the market cost of this attrition is $30 million. Assuming 20% go into in-house roles, the law firms are providing an $18 million training cross-subsidy to their clients (now how’s that for a value-add!). Assuming firms are expanding their training programs to include digital literacy and related topics, these costs are only going to escalate.

All this data points to the cost of not getting significantly better at talent management.

#5 New and old friends

The 2009 AFR listing included IP specialist firms Davies Collison Cave and Griffith Hack. Both of those firms are now part of ASX-listed entities and playing a very different game.

The 2019 AFR survey includes points to two emerging strategic groups:

  • The multi-disciplinaries or MDPs – firms that include significant consulting and adjacent (to legal) offerings. The standout members are the Big 4 legal arms plus Minter Ellison. Others that have a foot or toe in this pond include Corrs, Clayton Utz, Herbert Smith Freehills and McCullough Robertson.
  • The global boutiques – firms that are focused on just one or two service line or sectors in Australia and tied to a mothership back in UK or USA. Obvious examples include Seyfarth Shaw, Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy, Clyde & Co, Squire Patton Boggs, Jones Day, White & Case and Quinn Emmanuel.

In conclusion

There are lots of other interesting case studies behind the AFR surveys. They provide a rich history of our legal market and we should be very grateful to the participating firms and the AFR that the data is there to be shared and stories to be told.

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