The legal market place – carnage or opportunity?

When you look at the legal marketplace, what do you see?

With the implementation of the far reaching Legal Services Act finally happening in the UK (albeit with some fairly significant delays in related regulation), it seems the right time to step back and assess the state of the market.

Talking to people in the profession about this, from partners to in-house lawyers, business development directors to IT professionals, through to trainees and law students, one thing is clear.

There is no single opinion on the state of the market right now.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Opinions are strong and polarised.

Is the glass half empty or half full?

The world of pain

One group see the profession as an industry in decline.

Painful struggles with increasing firm overdrafts and personal debt are symptomatic of underlying structural problems with the profession, and the cash flow challenges facing many firms are just another indicator that it's time to get out before the interest rates rise and bankruptcy looms large.

With lawyers at both small and large law firms working harder than ever, increasing competition from overseas firms and LPOs becoming more visible, and constant talk of a new wave of competition, does not fill them with hope that easier times are ahead.

Small firms worry about hyper efficient, large scale competitors with a resource base, national reach, consumer brand and technology platform  that they simply can't match. Large firms worry about transactions being disaggregated and large chunks of profitable work being placed with legal service providers with a cheaper cost base. Mid-sized firms talk about being squeezed, with larger firms looking for work in new markets just to keep their associates busy while they weather the current economic storm, and about smaller, more agile firms  punching above their weight.

These people can often see the need for change, but despair of the pace of change in many law firms, pointing out that the culture and consensual nature of partnership often make decisions glacial when they need to be made at the speed of the digital world we now live in.

They look at the management of their firm, and question whether they have the right skills and experience to thrive in such a turbulent environment. Management themselves wonder how they can free themselves from operational fire-fighting to spend time focussing on the strategic questions that will define their firm's future.

The lawyers lower down the pyramid see equity structures remaining in some firms that encourage low performing partners to sit back and coast, while the best talent works their asses off and often still finds it impossible to break into the club.

Below them are a generation of students who have made a huge financial and personal commitment to enter the profession, and are finding training contracts like gold dust. Those that are lucky enough to find work may be confronted by suggestions that the legal training system is in need of reform and is not equipping graduates with the skills they need to excel in the profession and exceed client and colleague's expectation.

They may also be confronted with a linear career path, and find that if that's one they are willing to follow, then the demands made by the firm are at odds with a generation Y philosophy that buts greater emphasis on work/life balance.

Those who see the world in these terms often point to clients showing less loyalty and who have ever increasing expectations in terms of service standards, yet in the same breath are looking to pay less for that service. A widespread rejection of the hourly rate billing model leaves many firms struggling to come up with a viable alternative and without the capability to re-engineer their business model to support these new fee structures.

The downward fee pressure squeezes profit margins further, and even after several rounds of morale-sapping restructurings and redundancies, with economic growth in the core western markets slow at best, there's no end in sight.

Pretty grim huh?

Now those that know me know that I'm on balance, a pretty upbeat person, so let's try and bring a bit of balance to the picture.

There are plenty of people out there in the profession who don't think like that. Who see the current time of change as tremendously exciting. These are the people who see

A world of opportunity

First and foremost they see an incredibly profitable sector that has weathered an unprecedented recession and shown real resilience with relatively few high profile casualties.

They see businesses with the ability to offer a broad portfolio of services that add real value to clients at critical points in their lives or organisational existence. Many of these services are counter cyclical (helping manage difficult economic conditions) and many of which allow the lawyer to genuinely claim that coveted position of trusted advisor.

It's not hard to point to law firms that have access to senior people at some of the best and biggest companies in the world and advise some of the most influential people who are shaping society.

For those in the UK, having a core competency in the English language and the common law system that underpins many other legal markets means firms are well placed to support global businesses and expand intro higher growth international markets (as indeed many UK firms have done very successfully).

While there would be an acknowledgement that the bar for client acquisition and retention is being constantly raised (particularly by increasingly sophisticated business development professionals and practices) this is raising standards in the profession and represents progress. There is still a huge opportunity to win by being ahead of this curve and setting the pace.

For those with one eye on the future, advocates of the profession will point out that the chance of a career offering not just the potential to earn big bucks, but one that can offer a lifetime of intellectual challenge and stimulation, will always attract its fair share of top talent, and that the training and development opportunities within law firms have improved massively over the last ten years.

Those who see opportunity see the ability to innovate as being a genuine source of competitive advantage, and are looking at technology, process and efficiency as ways of maintaining and indeed improving profitability in a fast changing market. The ability to change quickly is a key enabler, and they recruit the people with the ability to adapt and thrive to make this a reality.

They also see that market consolidation can offers opportunities. Low price acquisitions, the ability to pick and chose individual teams, to make strategic acquisitions of particular clients or relationships, and the clearing out of some of the noise in the market place.

Yes clients are demanding "more for less" but that's a common refrain across all business these days - the change facing the profession is not unique and in  many other industries there are organisations that came out as big winners.

A somewhat simplistic categorisation, but I urge you to reflect - which messages resonate most, and critically, what are you going to do about it?

 

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