This title is on the record as having doubts regarding the Big Four’s legal ambitions, at least judged against claims typically made by some outside observers. Readers will all know such assertions: that the group are more sophisticated, slicker and tech-savvy than law firms and set to disrupt law on a global scale.
But while the last 25 years has not yet seen them live up to such claims, the Big Four clearly have formidable assets, contacts and brands and have collectively stepped up their investment in the last three years.
So the surprise as we report this month is how little ground the group are making with one of the key audiences they need to get anywhere near their goals: GCs at major UK companies. As the second-largest legal market in the world and the most liberalised, not to mention a territory in which the Big Four have decades of history, this should be ideal hunting ground for them.
Yet it is striking how low profile they remain with prominent GCs in the UK, even at in-house teams with reputations as progressive buyers of legal services. Indeed, while many GCs feel ignorant of the specifics of the Big Four push in law, most can imagine a credible model in which they combine tech-assisted delivery, compliance services, consulting and global scale to provide something distinctive from law firms. The potential client base is open-minded to the pitch, they’re just not getting it directly.
That very few GCs are currently using them could be understood on the basis that contractual panels inevitably slow the march of new entrants. But what is more surprising is how few have been actively courted, a striking omission given the much-vaunted reputation of the Big Four for slick and relentless marketing.
Which rather begs the question of how their services are being sold, if not via the chief legal officer. The group is hiring, and while their practices remain relatively small in the UK, they must be doing something to feed those hungry mouths. The answer, as best as can be gleaned from the group’s coy responses, is that much of their work is coming from internal referrals from their wider businesses, explaining the relatively low profile with GCs.
But if this route is their primary means of securing work, it could prove to be a cul-de-sac for accountancy-tied law firms. You don’t have to buy all the conference-circuit rhetoric to believe that GCs’ general status in major companies has risen over the last ten to 15 years, while the comparative clout of chief financial officers has ebbed.
The progressive onslaught of regulation continues to strengthen the hand of GCs. At the same time, the drumbeat of audit scandals and the current obsession with creating new business models and disruption have somewhat eroded the pull of senior bean-counters. The former for obvious reasons, the latter because the operational polish favoured by accountants is less useful if you are trying to create the next tech-infused overnight success.
We have reached a day in which it is increasingly unusual for GCs to be overruled, or have new providers foisted on their legal team, not least because GCs have established themselves as more commercially-minded and harder to externally challenge. The danger for the Big Four is they are playing a game that is increasingly dated and on the way to being outright obsolete. There is no path to legal glory that won’t come largely from the GC’s office.