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Bigger. Better. Both?

How to recognise a NewLaw firm

12 December, 2013

. Law. Strategy

In today’s rapidly changing legal landscape it is important to define and be able to recognise NewLaw firms and their many variations.

Mark Harris, CEO and Co-founder of Axiom Law, said in a July 19, 2013 interview on Bloomberg Law “It’s a challenge to describe us when we’re creating a new category”. The ‘new category’ to which Mark Harris refers is NewLaw, the name given to it by Eric Chin of Beaton Capital.

In a post on September 13, 2103 Eric Chin wrote “The meteoric rise of substitutes (in the Michael Porter sense) for traditional BigLaw firms is witnessing the emergence and growth of firms like Axiom Law, Riverview Law, Keystone Law, AdventBalance, to name but a few. To describe these substitutes I have coined the collective noun ‘NewLaw’.”

And it’s only three months since the Last days of the BigLaw business model appeared and was followed by my post on The rise and rise of the NewLaw business model. In this time dozens of thought leaders from around the world have contributed over 40,000 words in comments and replies. These may be found here on Bigger. Better. Both? | The Beaton Capital blog and also in others’ posts, e.g. here by Adam Smith Esq and here by The Last Honest Lawyer.

This animated conversation highlights the need for a practical definition of the NewLaw business model. A working typology is also needed to help recognise and categorise NewLaw firms. Beaton Capital’s current thinking on a definition and typology follows.

Definition of the NewLaw business model

My thinking on the hallmarks of the BigLaw business model has progressed since I first wrote about it in September. I now see the BigLaw model characterised by:

1. Attraction and training of top legal talent

2. Lawyers striving to deliver near-perfect technical excellence

3. Lawyers expected to both find and produce work for clients

4. Promotion of the personal brands of rainmakers

5. Use of sustaining technologies (in the Christensen sense)

6. ‘Leveraging’ of full-time lawyers to do the bulk of the work serving clients

7. Creation of a tournament to motivate lawyers to strive to become equity partners

8. Tight restriction of the number of equity owners

9. Structured or behave as a partnership

10. Charge clients on hourly rates.

These hallmarks do not explicitly include the influence of partner compensation systems or the still prevailing attitude of BigLaw firms that almost all of their labour, occupancy, information technology and other costs need to be treated as fixed. It seems to me that these are secondary to some of the 10 hallmarks cited above.

In contrast, the NewLaw model looks like this:

1. Deployment of talent with the requisite legal and process skills

2. Practitioners striving to deliver service to fit-for-purpose standards

3. Selling and producing work are separated

4. Promotion of a corporate brand

5. Application of disruptive technologies (also in the Christensen sense)

6. Flexi-work practices that match supply with demand

7. No tournament

8. Non-lawyer shareholders

9. Incorporated

10. Charge clients fixed fees.

For both models hallmarks 1 to 4 encompass human capital; 5, the type of technology; 6 and 7, practice economics; 8 and 9, ownership structure; and 10, how clients are charged.

The models share the use of qualified and licensed legal talent. This leads one to conclude they also share a common commitment to client-centric ethical behaviour.

It is evident that in almost every respect the BigLaw and NewLaw business models are different. NewLaw firms are completely re-engineering their underlying business model of legal services delivery.

A closer look at the types of NewLaw firm we have analysed suggests NewLaw business models are a heterogeneous category.

Proposed typology of NewLaw business models

The earliest forms of NewLaw firm emerged in the 1990s when Epoq started using document automation technology and online delivery to tailor even complex legal documents to an individual client’s circumstances. Since that time entrepreneurial lawyers, business people and clients of law firms have been investing in new ways of delivering legal services and processes. The result is the emergence of a broad category of NewLaw providers with many variations or sub-categories within.

The following table proposes a way of understanding what distinguishes BigLaw from NewLaw and how different types of NewLaw are emerging.

The table below shows the degree to which each NewLaw type may be considered to be a pure form of NewLaw. Thus the two – ‘NewLaw service providers’ and ‘Virtual legal service providers’ – receive five s each, the LPOs receive four s, and so on.

A Typology of NewLaw

Types of NewLaw and examples 

 

Human capital

Disruptive technology

Practice economics

Corporate ownership

Fixed fees

NewLaw service providers

A

Virtual legal service providers

B

LPOs

C  

Online legal marketplaces

D  

Client captives

E  

Legal document suppliers

F  

Fixed fee traditional law firms

G      

These examples are illustrative, although not all will necessarily agree the choices fit perfectly into their types:

AAxiom Law, AdventBalance, Riverview Law, Slater & Gordon Ltd

BClearspire, Virtual Law

CPangea3, Exigent LPO

DLawyerSelect, LegalMatch

E. In-house law departments, including new forms such as BT Law Ltd and Carillion Legal

FEpoq, LegalZoom, LawDepot

GValorem Law, Marque Lawyers

Hybrids can be found in those that fall across the types, for example, Trademarkia, Rocket Lawyer and LawPath do not fit neatly in just one type and are in fact ‘Virtual legal service providers’ which are also ‘Legal document suppliers’

Conclusions

A continuum exists. It ranges from near pure forms of NewLaw, such as Axiom Law, through at least seven sub-categories to BigLaw. Whether fixed fee BigLaw firms are one or the other form is moot. In the main firms like Valorem Law and Marque Lawyers are much more like BigLaw than NewLaw, but clearly their mindsets are moving in the NewLaw direction.

It is clear NewLaw firms cannot meet all forms of clients’ needs. Nor for that matter can BigLaw firms do so cost-effectively. For example, large, complex and fast moving matters such as are found in takeovers and disputes are and will remain the domain of BigLaw. Equally in consumer markets, as the UK is demonstrating, NewLaw firms are rapidly becoming the providers of choice for legal services.

In 2010 the late Professor Larry E. Ribstein of the University of Illinois College of Law wrote The Death of Big Law. He comprehensively argued BigLaw firms (which he labelled Big Law to connote business model and size) are in dire trouble. The rapid success of NewLaw firms described here confirms this.

Beaton Capital has no doubt about the continuing importance of BigLaw firms in our economies, but it the time is now for re-thinking and re-inventing.

Further reading

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

+ 2018: The year Axiom becomes the world’s largest legal services firm

+ Last days of the BigLaw business model

+ BigLaw at sea. Red Ocean or Blue Ocean?

+ Is anything really changing in BigLaw?

This post was written by George Beaton, a director of Beaton Capital and Beaton Research + Consulting. George is also at Google+ as +George Beaton.

4 Responses to How to recognise a NewLaw firm

Tristan Forrester says: 14 April, 2014 at 9:51 am

This line really caught my eye: “the time is now for re-thinking and re-inventing of [BigLaw].”

Any views George on which aspects of BigLaw are in most need of reinvention? Presumably you wouldn’t recommend taking on NewLaw at their own game (unless you’re a firm in the desolate middle market?).

So that raises the question for me, how does BigLaw need to be reinvented? Or to put it another way, what will BigLaw 2.0 look like?

Reply
Dr George Beaton says: 15 April, 2014 at 10:28 pm

Tristan you ask a massive question that defies an adequate reply within the limits of our blog.

In summary, BigLaw firms need to address their positioning, top line approaches (eg sales resourcing and diversification), fixed cost paradigms (eg labour, ITC and occupancy), and work flow management.

Towards the end of this year we will publish our second book. It addresses the why, what and how of BigLaw business model transformation.

Reply
Stephen Yoon says: 21 November, 2016 at 3:44 pm

“Tech-driven” law firms is another category of NewLaw. LegalVision (https://www.legalvision.com.au) is a good example.

Reply
Dr George Beaton says: 22 November, 2016 at 4:30 pm

Stephen, thanks for your comment/question. I see LV as a dispersed (or virtual) talent provider, the services of which are technology-enabled for lawyer-client contact and some degree of project management. Am I missing something about LV that is not apparent from their website? To me, on the one hand, ‘tech-driven’ is true of all BigLaw business model firms, and on the other hand, AI-bsed services are also ‘tech-driven’.

Reply

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