Being most things to most clients just isn’t sustainable

Being most things to most clients just isn’t sustainable

Years ago, in the immediate wake of the banking crisis, I wrote a column on the notion that top London law firms, having pursued consolidation and growth for the preceding quarter century, had fallen out of love with being big. The argument was that they were increasingly focused on segmentation – meaning tighter focus on their core markets – than consolidation. I have made duffer calls over the years, but in retrospect only one of those points, on losing faith with growth, was substantively borne out. The second observation about a more clearly-segmented legal industry emerging has largely not come to pass. Major London firms have consistently eschewed growth strategies with generally poor results. But no matter the structural pressures building on the legal industry, they have yet to get used to the idea of being more rigorously focused on core markets. Incremental chipping – ditching a bit of structured finance here, a little employment disputes there – is about as good as it got.

Yet there is an increasingly salient argument to be made that major law firms have two broad approaches that look sustainable if they wish to be major forces in high-end law. The first is to operate closer to the classic partner-driven model – a simplified regime based on low leverage, partner-heavy service, and being focused in a relatively small number of markets and geographies. This is a stance successfully applied by many of the more potent US-bred law firms expanding in Europe. Continue reading “Being most things to most clients just isn’t sustainable”

Comment: Innovation needs law firm champions as Axiom doubts emerge

Comment: Innovation needs law firm champions as Axiom doubts emerge

We have at LB Towers something of a reputation for being sceptical of the claims to fresh thinking surrounding much of New Law Land. One exception, though, has been Axiom, the pioneering outfit that pushed lawyering into the mainstream.

Sure, Axiom’s message could be obscured by strangulated attempts to ape Silicon Valley speak, an odd trait given the straight-talking style of founder Mark Harris. But its growth rates and reputation for quality never made you doubt that the outfit was a cut well above most New Law lightweights. Continue reading “Comment: Innovation needs law firm champions as Axiom doubts emerge”

Innovation needs champions as Axiom doubts emerge

Innovation needs champions as Axiom doubts emerge

We have at LB Towers something of a reputation for being sceptical of the claims to fresh thinking surrounding much of New Law Land. One exception, though, has been Axiom, the pioneering outfit that pushed lawyering into the mainstream.

Sure, Axiom’s message could be obscured by strangulated attempts to ape Silicon Valley speak, an odd trait given the straight-talking style of founder Mark Harris. But its growth rates and reputation for quality never made you doubt that the outfit was a cut well above most New Law lightweights. Continue reading “Innovation needs champions as Axiom doubts emerge”

Comment: It’ll take more than a float to make DWF the new DLA

Comment: It’ll take more than a float to make DWF the new DLA

Regular readers will have to forgive two columns in one issue on capitalising law firms but the day I write this piece DWF has finally set out its stall for that much-touted public float. As can be gleaned from last autumn’s cover feature on law firm IPOs, there is a considerable scepticism regarding the rhetoric surrounding DWF’s planned float, which, if it goes ahead, would be on the main market.

Despite initial talk of £1bn valuations, even the more modest £400m-£600m range some were circulating is seen as a huge stretch by a number of the advisers that have worked in this area. Continue reading “Comment: It’ll take more than a float to make DWF the new DLA”

It’ll take more than a float to make DWF the new DLA

It’ll take more than a float to make DWF the new DLA

Regular readers will have to forgive two columns in one issue on capitalising law firms but the day I write this piece DWF has finally set out its stall for that much-touted public float. As can be gleaned from last autumn’s cover feature on law firm IPOs, there is a considerable scepticism regarding the rhetoric surrounding DWF’s planned float, which, if it goes ahead, would be on the main market.

Despite initial talk of £1bn valuations, even the more modest £400m-£600m range some were circulating is seen as a huge stretch by a number of the advisers that have worked in this area. Continue reading “It’ll take more than a float to make DWF the new DLA”

The GC outlook: more for more and more to come

The GC outlook: more for more and more to come

As a long-term observer of the legal profession, I view the development of GCs with an oxymoronic mix of admiration and cynicism. Admiration because common claims about the dramatic improvements in the calibre and size of the talent pool in the in-house profession are that rarest of beasts: a received wisdom that turns out on inspection to be largely true. Cynicism because those strides are often mixed with unwillingness to tackle the ethical and practical implications that come with increased clout.

Neither does much commentary account for the complex, love-hate relationship between GCs and law firms or the powerful impact of the career incentives that in-house counsel face on the development of the legal industry. Continue reading “The GC outlook: more for more and more to come”

We come not to bury the Magic Circle but to save it

We come not to bury the Magic Circle but to save it

A number of contacts have been telling me of late that Legal Business is gaining a reputation for being ultra-bearish on the Magic Circle. So entrenched is this view becoming that one Freshfields partner has apparently taken to claiming to colleagues that LB is talking down the Magic Circle in favour of US players because recruiters tell us to.

Continue reading “We come not to bury the Magic Circle but to save it”

For good or ill, Kirkland is now redefining high-end law

For good or ill, Kirkland is now redefining high-end law

Though I’ve always known that soul-of-a-law-firm cover features are the biggest draw for our readers, the response to our Kirkland & Ellis epic in July has been striking. Not since ‘Branded’ two years ago exposed the state of King & Wood Mallesons’ European business has a piece in these pages provoked such an intense reaction. Our team did a good job but that also reflects the hold the K&E phenomenon has taken over the industry’s imagination. Having covered the law for a good number of years, I cannot think of a firm that has attracted such strong emotions split between appalled detractors and the growing band battered into submissive admiration.

The critics loathe the outfit in part for upending some accepted notions of how global law firms are supposed to excel. But most of the distaste springs from the potency of a challenge emerging from outside the profession’s established London and New York elites. Kirkland’s success, however, isn’t just about defying norms. In some areas, Kirkland took platitudes of focus, meritocracy and leadership and turned them into realities. Sometimes brutal realities but that’s reality for you. Continue reading “For good or ill, Kirkland is now redefining high-end law”

Law firm IPOs still don’t make much sense (but soon could)

Law firm IPOs still don’t make much sense (but soon could)

‘Who would possibly invest in a law firm?’ asks one leader this month, reflecting a common view. Yet the current vogue for floating law firms suggests momentum is indeed building, more than a decade after the introduction of the Legal Services Act. In recent weeks, DWF has turned heads with talk of a £1bn float this year. While the price – not officially attributed to the firm – looks fanciful, even a standard £400m-£600m valuation would be by some way the largest legal float yet seen. The last 12 months have seen a series of offerings, with Knights in June raising £50m and others recently braving the market, including Rosenblatt, Gordon Dadds and Keystone Law. And while larger commercial law firms publicly play down the prospects of raising outside capital, there is no doubt it is now getting more active consideration.

Yet for institutional lawyers, the basic tension in attracting outside shareholders remains. Large law firms generate plenty of capital and have the advantage of an owner/manager structure that closely aligns to the business’ needs and interests. It has never been that clear how the very different incentives of outside investors can be aligned with partners, beyond giving a payout to older partners, a poor outcome for the business as a going concern. Law firms are built on ‘elevator assets’, partners bred to expect huge autonomy make a lousy bet for outside shareholders. Continue reading “Law firm IPOs still don’t make much sense (but soon could)”

Growing weary of snake oil dressed as commentary

Growing weary of snake oil dressed as commentary

This may be an issue dominated by all things Millennial, but I am past that, so the column that follows is likely the result of age-induced cynicism. But even by the standards of the legal industry, I find myself increasingly weary of what passes for industry commentary these days.

If an alien beamed down to earth and judged the profession through the lens of what the consultancy and the ‘thought leadership’ industries said about it, what would be the lessons they would take? The law is staffed by incompetent managers. Lawyers are uninterested in technology. General counsel (GCs) are the sole drivers of innovation and progress in the profession. The Big Four accountants are tearing through law. The legal industry faces an imminent structural collapse. I could go on and the purveyors of this certainly do. Continue reading “Growing weary of snake oil dressed as commentary”