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26 Sep 2019

Four Stats That Caught Our Eye from “The Bellwether Report Series 2019: Is the Future Small?”

The 2019 Bellwether Reports focus on issues and trends the U.K. legal industry is paying close attention to, covering topics like stress in the legal profession, the attributes solicitors consider to be essential in today’s rapidly changing legal market, Brexit and the general state of small law firms.

Here are four stats from the small law firm report that caught our eye—and you’ll find they’re perfectly applicable to the U.S. legal market.

64% of small firm solicitors previously worked in medium, large or top tier firms

We’ve discussed time and time again the trend of attorneys from large firms, including Big Law firms, leaving those firms to launch their own small boutique firms. The Bellwether Report not only lends some quantitative support to this trend, it suggests an interesting dynamic: the majority of solicitors at small firms spent at least some of their careers at larger firms. This means that they have been exposed to (theoretically) several successful processes that worked at larger firms, which they could implement at their small firms. Of course, on the flip side, these solicitors were previously at firms that perhaps had more resources to support those processes and procedures. As we have previously discussed however, AI, automation and other technological advances have helped shrink the divide between large and small firm resources in recent years—a trend that’s not likely to slow anytime soon.

56% of small firm solicitors said that work/life balance was a major benefit of working at a small firm

When we saw this stat, alarm bells went off in our heads. We’ve been told frequently that small and solo firms were the cures to the perennial work/life balance issues that ail attorneys. And yet, just slightly more than half of the small firm solicitors surveyed thought that work/life balance was a major benefit to working at a small law firm.

We take this to mean that small firm solicitors are working about as hard as they would be if they were at larger firms. The idea that small firms are not necessarily the answers to the legal industry’s work/life balance issues is not new. In our , we found that small law firm attorneys in the U.S. were working at least eight hours a day in the office, (although they were often billing only a fraction of that time each day).

74% of small firm solicitors said that building a pipeline of future business was an issue

Twenty-five percent of respondents said that attracting new clients was a major issue, while another 49 percent said that doing so was a minor issue. We can’t speak for the remaining 26 percent—either they are bona fide rainmakers who aren’t worried about their new client pipelines, or they have no idea how important marketing is to the survival of their firms.

Nevertheless, this stat caught our eye because it shows that the vast majority of small law firm attorneys understand that they cannot ignore marketing and business development. We’ve previously covered aspects of law firm marketing—and we expect to do so again in the future—because it is a topic of utmost importance to small law firms.

Without some form of marketing, there won’t be new and returning clients. Without clients, there can be no revenues. And without revenues, there can be no law firm. For lawyers thinking about making the move to a smaller law firm, they must understand that they will need to market themselves and their firms in order to stay afloat.

51% of small firm solicitors said that their firms are optimally sized for success

Barely half of respondents thought their firms were not sized appropriately for continued success. There are two possible ways to interpret this. Either the respondents believe their firms must continue to grow in size in order to handle the number of clients they feel are required for their firms to be profitable and successful. Or respondents thought their firms needed to grow in order to handle the kinds of clients they feel are required for their firms’ success.

Whatever the interpretation, this relatively low number is an indication that small law firms must engage in more or better strategic planning. Through strategic planning, lawyers and their firms can determine the direction their businesses should be taking and develop strategies for getting there. This includes assembling the right team, targeting the right clients and pricing fees to ensure profitability. With only one out of every two small firm U.K. solicitors believing that their firms are optimally sized for success, it is clear that there are many small firms out there in desperate need of a strategic approach to growth.

Trends that transcend country borders

This Bellwether Report was based on online surveys completed by 176 solicitors in the U.K. and Wales, along with eight in-depth interviews with lawyers in small firms and small offices of larger firms. Twenty percent of respondents worked in a firm with 20-plus fee earners, 23 percent worked in firms with 11 to 20 fee earners, 46 percent worked in firms with two to 10 fee earners and 11 percent worked in a firm where they were the only fee earner.

But don’t let the surveys’ U.K. origins fool you. The rise of boutique firms founded by Big Law expats, the struggle to find work/life balance, the importance of marketing and the need for strategic planning are important topics that lawyers here in the United States and all across the world are dealing with today—and will continue to grapple with for the foreseeable future.