A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

The empire strikes back

In Articles, Commentary, Legal Technology on 8 October 2021 at 11:20 am

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 7 October 2021.

The biggest structural change in the Australian legal market over the past 30 years has been the growth of in-house legal teams.

But while the vast majority of current in-house solicitors received their initial training in private law firms and then moved across to the client side, I predict that the next decade will see a reversal of this trend, particularly at more senior levels.

In comparing the employee value proposition of in-house versus private practice, there are five areas where law firms are fighting back.

Flexibility

In a post-COVID-19 world, very few law firms will return to a work schedule of 9 to 5, five days a week, in the office. They will be far more accommodating of lawyers seeking to work from home for part of the week, or those wanting to work across different time slots in the day or to limit the number of workdays.

Any perceived advantage that in-house roles were more flexible has been eliminated by law firms learning to operate effectively in an anywhere anytime model.

Workload

For many years, the lure of in-house has been roles with more work-life balance, less stress, and no timesheets. 

While no timesheets are still a point of difference, most in-house lawyers are now reportedly working extremely long hours and are stretched thin. The pressure for them to do more with less is incessant, and the demands on their time are likely to grow rather than diminish. 

On the other side of the fence, many law firms are rejigging the workload of graduates and early career lawyers to be far more sustainable. They have also stepped up their programs focused on employee mental health and wellbeing.

Technology

Association of Corporate Counsel research suggests General Counsel are constrained in adopting technology by restrictions on capital expenditure and a lack of time to implement new systems.

Many law firms, in contrast, are ramping up their technology investment and experimentation. The recent Thomson Reuters State of the Legal Market found that law firms spent over $22,000 per lawyer on legal technology in FY21. The same paper revealed that 30 out of the 50 largest law firms in Australia now have an innovation function.

Over time, the technology gap between in-house and private will grow. A career move in-house may become to be seen as a step back in time – a move to a job using old and blunt tools of the trade.

Income

Data from legal recruiters Mahlab suggests in-house teams pay more for 3 to 7-year PQE lawyers, but after that, the differential starts to swing the other way. Equity partners in premium law firms are now earning incomes that far exceed their peers in in-house roles, save for a few GCs of major listed companies that enjoy exceptional incentive arrangements.

Private practice salaries and benefits are estimated to increase by 8 to 10% in the coming years. It will be very hard for in-house to price match given budget constraints and the need for consistency across organisation-wide pay scales. To the chagrin of many CFOs, in-house lawyers are already the most expensive people on their payroll outside the C-suite.

Culture

“It’s a boys’ club”, has been a common refrain of female lawyers leaving private practice. With an industry average of just under one-third of female law firm partners, their complaint may have had just cause, till now.

Most of the top 30 law firms across Australia have fully committed to a 40:40:20 or an equivalent diversity goal at partner level. Significant efforts are being made to address unconscious bias and to eliminate sexist language and behaviour. More senior leadership roles are filled by women. Comprehensive diversity and inclusion programs are now the norm.

The progress is slow, but the prevailing culture across many law firms is shifting on gender issues.

If trends in the five areas described above persist, the employee value proposition of in-house will become less compelling. With increasing demand, in-house teams will have to build their own capacity by hiring more graduates and invest in early-career legal and commercial training.

This is good news for law firms; after years of training young talent only to lose them to in-house roles, the shoe will comfortably fit on the other foot.

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