The strength of small law firms
Recently, Globality released the results of survey Global Trends in Hiring Outside Counsel. It revealed that 62 per cent believe small law firms are better at client service and 43 per cent of respondents believe them to be more innovative than their big counterparts, writes Peter George.
This might be news to some, but for small law firms all over the country, it confirms what we already know.
Time was that ‘small’ was a dirty word. Legal services were all about law firms and not just any firm, but a big, preferably international partnership located in an expensive city centre office. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard “we’re a full-service firm” or “we have the largest [take-your-pick] team in the country”, the implication being that, however the service was delivered, whatever the style of the lawyer, however thoughtful or innovative the approach, size trumped all.
Now, as we know, things are changing. Now, the need for legal advice no longer automatically leads to instructing a law firm. Now, even if a law firm is instructed, it’s no longer necessary for that firm to be big, international and multi-office.
The time of the small firm has arrived.
Several factors converged to make now our moment. First, technology enables small organisations to achieve efficiencies, reach and scale that were the preserve of large, well-funded practices a decade ago.
Second, the rise of ‘gig’ or freelance resources enables small firms to power big projects, by augmenting a core of employed lawyers with contract lawyers to add scale or specific expertise. And last, small firms are used to operating in a lean and efficient way: having only 20 colleagues tends to focus the mind.
As the Globality report highlights, clients perceive this. The tide is turning, not only towards alternative providers of legal services but towards alternative law firms: small, focused, high quality boutiques who are doing law their way.
This is not to say that large law firms are bad. Of course they aren’t. The point is that small firms can be just as good and I speak from experience: I was a partner in a very large firm for nearly 20 years and now am a partner at a small, 25-person firm. At my firm, it takes a two-minute walk of the office to call a team meeting, so we spend less time arranging conference calls and more time thrashing out ideas.
We can agree to a client’s unique needs with a five-minute meeting of the partners instead of preparing a lengthy justification for sign-off. Our size means we all contribute to a strategy based squarely in reality and, perhaps unsurprisingly, this creates a clear and common purpose that is palpable.
It’s not all plain sailing, though. There are times when I’d give anything for a marketing manager ready to help at a moment’s notice. I’d love to have the resources to avoid ever drafting a pitch from scratch again or to monitor the reception desk while our office manager is away. Then there’s the downside of being a small, supportive team.
If we’re not careful, we can become insular in our thinking and comfortable in our actions. And we have to work hard to achieve any kind of profile, an issue borne out by the Globality report which suggests that GCs would use smaller firms more if only they knew how and where to find them. So being in a small firm is no picnic and we certainly don’t always get it right.
But we do find that our size enables us to move quickly to effect change, be practical and approachable in our client service and work with colleagues in a human – and humane way. I love this way of working and a quick straw poll around the office this afternoon suggests that my colleagues feel the same. No one here is surprised by the results of the Globality report, but a few admitted to wondering why it has taken so long for people to realise the strength of small.
Peter George is the managing partner of CIE Legal, a six-partner commercial law firm based in Melbourne that focuses on advising companies in the consumer goods sector. He joined the firm in 2015. Prior to that, he was a partner at one of Australia’s largest law firms.