If you ask seasoned lawyers what they dislike most about law firms, this is what they tell you:
1. Billable hour targets
Lawyers don’t like billable hour targets. This will come as no surprise – are there any lawyers who like them?
They’ve long been considered a necessary evil in the running of a profitable law firm. But they come at significant cost – to work-life balance, often to family life and to interests outside the law.
Billable targets keep lawyers under relentless pressure, and it’s continuous - the clock starts at zero each day, each month, and every year.
Do clients like them?
I suspect you won’t be surprised by the answer to that one too. Billing targets drive behaviours that clients don’t like – from the invention of the ‘6-minute unit’ (it is easier to achieve billing targets of course when you can charge six minutes for something that only takes one) to the incentives they create to over-service.
Billable hour targets are not liked by lawyers or clients – and an increasing number of firms are showing that you can run a profitable law firm without them.
Lawyers work hard; very hard. So it will come as no surprise that some of them, particularly the high performers, are concerned when they see large chunks of their billings syphoned off into overheads and out of take-home pay.
Law firms love expensive real estate and lavish events – but would their high-performing lawyers, and their clients prefer a better deal instead?
Increasingly, these costs are coming under fire from both within and outside these firms.
3. Lack of autonomy and control
How many partners feel like they’re owners; like they’re the ones making the key decisions affecting their individual practices? Many complain about how little control they have. They’re told how much to work, what to charge and, increasingly, which clients they may or may not service.
Many lawyers report that they lack a level of autonomy and control over their working lives and a lack of connection with the important business decisions that drive their practices.
Lawyers also note that large chunks of their productive time are taken up by non-legal work. Whether it is partner meetings, sub-committee meetings, preparing budgets for future years, reviewing past performance, doing staff reviews, and a myriad of other things (all of which do not count towards billable targets) – many would, if they had a choice, simply prefer to do what they do best – practise law.
Lawyers want a better deal. They want to do things differently. And this is the first major driver of change in the legal profession in Australia.
Other factors driving change
Clients want more value in the market for corporate legal services, and this is driven by savvy in-house legal teams. They know the Big Law system because they’re a product of it. They understand law firm margins, compare them to their own company’s profits, and they’re not happy.
First, they want lower-cost legal services. A recent survey of 88 major US companies (reported by Georgetown University and Thomson Reuters) asked general counsel whether they would leave Big Law to go to other law firms if it would save 30 per cent in cost.
74 per cent of GCs said they would, and only 13 per cent said they would not. In-house teams are looking for tailored pricing, price certainty, and more value, and the call for this is only getting louder.
Secondly, they want to be advised by the partner.
They certainly don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars an hour to be serviced by junior or intermediate-level lawyers. And they don’t want duplication and double-handling. How many in-house counsel scratch their heads when they see that even a special counsel needs to brief and obtain sign-off from a partner before the work can be issued by the firm?
In-house teams are increasingly looking to do things differently; and they’re increasingly turning to alternative firms to achieve this change.
Whilst the preceding points describe the drivers of change, technology has become the big enabler of it.
Smaller firms can look and feel and operate as smart as Big Law at a fraction of what that would have cost only a few years ago, with many of the alternative firms adopting technology which makes them look and feel and operate even smarter.
New ways of working, remote working, flexible working and new ways of collaborating - are all enabling change.
Lawyers vs Firms
And finally, there is brand. It used to be that a client would choose a law firm based on the firm’s brand. Increasingly, they’re looking to choose the individual who has the expertise – regardless of the firm they’re with. The decline in the importance of firm brand is being matched by the ascent of the personal brand – driven, again, by in-house counsel – who have the skill to know what’s needed and a willingness to engage it.
So why are so many new law firm models appearing?
They’re responding to a growing coalescence of forces: Lawyers want a better deal, clients want more value, technology is throwing the field wide open and we are seeing the rise of personal brand relative to firm brand.
These factors make fertile ground for the emergence of new models and an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Warren Kalinko (pictured) is the CEO of Keypoint Law, which was established in Australia by UK firm Keystone Law earlier this year.