A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

The Big 4 in law – failing again?

In Articles, Commentary on 4 September 2021 at 12:13 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 3 September 2021.

In 2018, PwC announced that it aimed to be a top 20 law firm in the world within five years. KPMG and EY also stated their intentions to significantly grow their legal teams.

While these ambitions of global domination are noteworthy, the progress of the big four in law has been underwhelming.

On one tangible measure of progress – the number of Australian-based partners – the evidence suggests PwC Legal has gone backwards, KPMG Legal has stalled, EY Law is growing, and Deloitte is still making up their minds.

If one added all the big four law firm partners and made one firm, this new player wouldn’t even make the top 15 in the latest Australian Financial Review Law Partnership Survey.

On other metrics, like lead roles in major M&A transactions, they’re hardly making a splash. They’ve made no attempt to enter the litigation space and recent headlines have been more about departures than new hires.

While the big four have made some inroads in managed service and volume legal solutions, this is mostly impacting in-house legal teams rather taking a lot of work from established law firms.

There are five major reasons why the big four might be struggling in law.

#1 The one-stop-shop

The essence of the big four value proposition is a one-stop-shop: buy all your business advisory services from us and there will be lower transaction costs, more integrated advice and a better client experience.

The problem is many sophisticated clients just don’t buy it. They regard the one-shop as risky and lazy.

These buyers prefer horses for courses and back themselves to pick out tried and tested specialists. They recognise the benefits of cognitive diversity and are wary of groupthink. They feel it’s easier to hold a specific firm accountable for their advice when it’s more discrete.

#2 Brand limitations

In another related market – management consulting – high-end strategy advice firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain still have the lion’s share of the best work. On the supply side, top MBA graduates generally prefer jobs in these places than the big four.

I think there are similar limitations when it comes to premium legal work. When clients have a bet-the-farm legal matter, the big four are not naturally considered as part of the tier 1 set (tax excepted).

For smaller matters and operational work, the big four are not naturally in the tier 2 consideration set, as they mostly price themselves above it.

#3 Conflicts

The big four are just that. Four! This has inevitably put limits on their penetration of the legal market.

It is estimated that the ASX50 is served by more than 300 law firms, barristers, freelancers and other legal consultants.

One of the key reasons for this fragmentation is conflicts. Most legal clients are particularly sensitive to the same advisers being involved, directly or peripherally, on both sides of a transaction or a dispute.

The threshold test of perceived conflict in legal matters is also much higher than, say, helping competing companies implement an enterprise software system.

#4 Leadership

Tony O’Malley at PwC and Stuart Fuller at KPMG led the way in growing their firms’ legal practices in Australia.

Interestingly, both these leaders were promoted to senior global roles about two years ago.

While it’s hard to quantify the impact of such changes, it seems that some of the drive and energy of the local practice has been lost with these promotions.

#5 The club

For the big four to make serious inroads into legal, quickly, they would have needed to poach some heavy hitters from heavy-hitting firms. Assuming they can match incomes, they would be asking these lawyers to leave their club.

This is how a typical lawyer rainmaker might weigh up a move.

“The new club is a lot, lot bigger and I will have even fewer decision rights. The new club will pander less to my specific needs, given it already has dozens of heavy hitters. The new club will ask me to fit into their service style and product ‘packaging’.

“The new club will be run by bean counters. Nah! I’d rather stay.”

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