Legal Business Blogs

Comment: The social contract – what is the law firm but the people?

The market for legal services will never be the same again. Mergers, alternative business structures, multi-disciplinary practices, law firm failures, onshoring, offshoring and the continual advance of technology all signpost change, and will continue to drive change in the future. But as we all jostle for market position and attempt to make sense of this ongoing maelstrom, how much thought is being given to the lifeblood of the profession: the lawyers of tomorrow?

The UK legal market is saturated: too many lawyers, not enough work for all, too few jobs. When the financial crisis hit, graduates who would have previously applied to the banks, the hedge funds and the trading houses chose instead the perceived safety of the professions. The law firms, of course, were not immune from the impact of the economic meltdown. Redundancies, fewer training contracts, lower newly qualified (NQ) retention rates and lower levels of recruitment were all indicative of the market then and, indeed, now. Aspiring lawyers continue to face the double whammy of fewer jobs and an increased level of competition for such jobs as there are. Although increasing numbers of graduates continue to complete the Legal Practice Course, the markets for training contracts and for NQ positions are incredibly tough.

There is another issue, however. For those who are talented enough or simply in the right place at the right time to get through the vacation scheme (now an essential part of any CV), law school and the training contract, and then be kept on as a solicitor, the question will increasingly be: ‘Was it all worth it?’ The monetary rewards, of course, can be excellent and will equate to whatever the market will pay. But what about the quality of the work on offer? My law firm interviews experienced litigation lawyers from Magic Circle firms who have been involved in vast regulatory investigations, have never met a client or have never been to court. Other interviewees seek to exit existing firms looking to ‘redesign’ service delivery methods, ie sell on price, with the quality of the actual work destined to move to the ‘stack it high, sell it cheap’ variety.

Will graduates of the future pass up the chance of becoming solicitors, as disillusionment and boredom become the watchwords of what it means to be a qualified practitioner?

These observed trends, driven by market consolidation creating global elite, mega-sized law firms, or by global elite, mega-sized clients demanding ever more commoditisation of legal services, will continue and intensify. Both of these legal landscapes raise the issue of the quality of work that will be on offer to the bright and highly educated graduates and lawyers of the future. Will we need them? Of course. But will they want us?

As the chattering legal classes discuss, commentate on and plan for a future of Tesco Law, mega-mergers, outsourcing, etc, we must not lose sight of the increasing number of people who have either already gone through, or will contemplate going through the arduous and expensive process of becoming a solicitor, only to be confronted with a quality of work that is either not what they signed up to or what they thought being a lawyer was all about. Of the current crop of associates, those that can move firms will and those that cannot won’t (until they are encouraged to try). Will the quality graduates of the future pass up the chance of becoming solicitors, as disillusionment and boredom become the watchwords of what it means to be a qualified practitioner?

Consolidation will bring further industry evolution and a clearer demarcation of the different types of law firm that are destined to inhabit the legal world of the future. Examples are the global elite practices; those firms that use technology to offer highly commoditised, high-volume work systems and product; and the niche specialist firms. Our model at Enyo is a straightforward one: we do one thing and one thing only (disputes), and we are highly focused in what we do. In our growth from 14 to 40, only one associate has left us (to return overseas) in the three years we have been in business. We have attracted good people because we promise, and deliver, good work. We limit to the absolute minimum the mumbo jumbo management speak of the larger firms and reward our associates as gifted, able, opinionated individuals who want to be involved in solving complex legal issues. This is what a specialist firm like ours can offer and being transparent about the available opportunities is relatively simple. Arguably, the larger law firms (the top 100 or 200) have become an annual venture driven by the relentless pursuit of profit per equity partner. However, the boom times of the mid-2000s are a distant memory, and many firms are now doing incredibly well just to maintain their financial performance in a saturated market. The huge firms are getting bigger, there is consolidation across the legal market at all levels and new specialist firms are entering the fray. Most commentators accept that there will not be any top-line income growth; it is all about market share, in which only the fittest will survive. The pace of change is accelerating, and the extent, depth and impact of the changes to be confronted is increasing.

In such an environment, the natural focus is on the business of the firm: anticipating and delivering what clients want so as to secure work, streamlining processes and increasing profitability. However, it is a mistake to forget the people who have committed to, or are about to commit to, the law as a long-term career and what we, as the current upholders of the profession, should be telling them about the path ahead. A key element of this message, and delivering what is promised, will be providing work of sufficient quality and interest to test and stretch individual ability and ambition. For a lot of law firms, this should mean offering work of sufficient quality to stretch even the sharpest of minds.

It is a mistake to forget the people who have committed to the law as a long-term career and what we should be telling them about the path ahead.

The legal market is changing and will continue to change. This brings, and will continue to bring, opportunity. The lawyers of tomorrow need to understand what will be expected of them by the profession in all of its evolving guises. For any legal business to survive and prosper, prospective recruits, trainees, NQs and associates of all levels need to be motivated to deliver the firm’s strategy du jour, and attracting and retaining the best talent should still be a fundamental priority for every single law firm. The quality of the work on offer is pivotal to that objective.

Simon Twigden is a founding partner of Enyo Law