Within the same week, two Magic Circle firms stressed to Legal Business the same mantra after departures of big-name lawyers: it is not about stars, the focus is the platform and that is what top clients are buying. In a mobile market where even the once-untouchable elite City law firms lose marquee names to high-paying rivals, it is an increasingly familiar refrain, albeit one that has spread from mid-weight stalwarts to the tier more used to the role of hunter than prey.
But law firms – and this goes double for the leaders in the UK and US – would be well advised to go nowhere near the seductive institutional defence and not only because the financial results of the last ten years provide ample evidence that contradicts the assertion.
For starters the team-vs-star point is plainly a false opposition that the most sophisticated clients will see straight through. Law firms with strong heritages, brands, client-bases, processes and training for obvious reasons find it easier to attract and retain the best and brightest. This naturally leads to positive reinforcement providing a higher concentration of stars, thereby strengthening the institution… and the virtuous cycle spins on.
The team-over-star defence will not convince the most demanding clients. If you are paying your law firm £20m a year for world-class services, you want the whole package.
But while there is a clear, demonstrable relationship between strong institutions and a preponderance of individual stars in a law firm – and indeed most businesses – can other models thrive? Well, it is apparent that excesses of a star culture can tip into long-term problems like under-investment and encouraging poisonous office politics. An uncontrolled culture of big beasts can also end up distributing too many resources to the stars – real and supposed – and hand self-interested mavericks a veto over long-term strategy (Dewey & LeBoeuf and King & Wood Mallesons are only two of the most prominent victims of this malaise).
But success in high-end professional services works best where institution and stars operate in both harmony and as an effective balance to the potential excesses of both approaches.
All of which is a long-winded way of reminding leading London law firms that the team-over-star defence is not only unconvincing, it will be regarded with disdain by their most demanding clients. If you are paying your law firm £20m a year for world-class services, you want the whole package, not either or.
Even allowing for the fact that partners habitually exaggerate how much business moves with individuals at the highest levels of the industry, any law firm that thinks clients are not also paying a premium for a bit of magic is in denial. Moreover, downplaying individual excellence after developing form for losing top-decile talent is never a good look.
Clients want comfort, polished technicians and then that extra spark of judgement, chemistry and, yes, charisma. Maybe technology and the algorithmic gods will in the decades ahead so utterly transform the legal profession that such lightning in a bottle matters no longer. But current trends strongly favour the star-laden over the polished institutions. For the majority of law firms in our pages, giving up on the pursuit of the exceptional individual is giving up on the game itself.