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Last days of the BigLaw business model?

6 September, 2013

. Law. Strategy

We are witnessing the last days of the BigLaw business model.

As recently as a few days ago, The Lawyer in London published a range of prognostications about the shape and fate of large law firms in 2018. For partners in large law firms the articles don’t make entirely comfortable reading.

But, The Lawyer, like almost all law firm leaders and observers of large law firms, misses the real point. The reality of 2018 and beyond will turn out to be a great deal worse and much more varied than The Lawyer suggests. And the adversity applies to all law firms not just big ones. Here’s why.

‘BigLaw’ is not about big law firms. It’s description of the business model used by firms generating more than 99% of law firm revenues today (that is, it excludes micro and sole practitioner ‘firms’ and the handful of alternative business model firms).

Let me explain by starting with a little history. In 1819 the firm we know today as Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP was founded in New York. Early in the 20th Century Paul Cravath enunciated the principles of a system to train associates rigorously and promote exclusively from within. To quote the firm’s website: “The rotation path fosters collaboration and eliminates the need for associates to compete for work, clients, training or bonuses. The Cravath System places a premium on efficiency and quality of work that no other firm matches, and it was through this value system, which we still use today, that Cravath created a new model for American law firms.”

One should add what Paul Cravath really invented was the foundation for the contemporary BigLaw business model. The modest claim to be “a new model for American law firms” is insufficient. The model rapidly became the basis of the Magic Circle and White Shoe firms of London and the USA – and every other law firm that strives to learn from and copy the model.

In the great industrial boom of the post World War II era firms seized on the Cravath model and turned it into the BigLaw model. The BigLaw business model enabled the massive growth of firms throughout the Anglo-American world – and has generated the fabled incomes of the equity partners of BigLaw firms for more than 60 years.

BigLaw business model

As Beaton Capital analyses it, the BigLaw business model is built on six key elements. These work together and no one is more important than another:

  • Attraction and training of top legal talent,
  • ‘Leveraging’ of these full-time lawyers to do the bulk of the work serving clients,
  • Creation of a tournament to motivate the lawyers to strive to become equity partners (the idea of a tournament is akin to Roman gladiator contests and the subject of a seminal book),
  • Tight restriction on the number of equity owners,
  • Structuring as a partnership, and
  • Charging high hourly rates (which is or at least until very recently has been possible because of the mystique associated with legal advice).

Consequences of the BigLaw business model

The consequences of the BigLaw business model as set out above are these:

  • Firms treat their lawyers as fixed costs (because of viewing them as a form of sunk cost and the time it takes to bring them to full productivity) plus most other costs are regarded as fixed too,
  • Firms pay their lawyers high salaries to win in the war to attract the very best talent,
  • Firms drive high utilisation from their lawyers (although it should be noted Australian and British utilisation is much lower in comparable American firms),
  • Profit – measured as profit per point of equity on issue – is maximised and as a result the average equity partner in a BigLaw business model firm earns far more than they if they were employed as in-house lawyers,
  • Profit is taken today and none is retained and as result partnerships have no balance sheets on which to rely for investment or rainy days, and
  • The clients bear the risk of time-based fee arrangements.

GettyImages_end-of-BigLawAre we witnessing the last days of the BigLaw business model?

In a word, yes. Many researchers and commentators are accumulating the evidence. The reader can find examples here, here, here and here.

Because today’s BigLaw business model is a consummate money-making machine for its owners, we can expect them to flex and adapt the BigLaw business model. They will not roll over and die facing the onslaught of adverse secular trends in the industry.

Future posts will explore the evidence we have gathered on the reasons why we witnessing the last days of the BigLaw business model.

Further reading

If you found this post of interest, you can find more on related topics from Bigger. Better. Both? here:

The reason law firms should say No

+ Firms need reinvention in tough times

+ For most law firms the pyramid has to change

+ Is anything really changing in BigLaw?

And also on the highly recommended Adam Smith Esq blog.

This post was written by George Beaton, a director of Beaton Capital and Beaton Research + Consulting with research assistance from Eric Chin, Senior Analyst.

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