Tomorrow’s law firm: has anyone asked its clients?

The quality of a blog post can often be measured by the quality and quantity of the comments appearing beneath it.  Recent articles in The Lawyer examining the most desirable structure for tomorrow’s law firm do not disappoint.  Nor would one expect them to, given their authors, Bruce MacEwan of Adam Smith Esq and Mark Brandon of Overture.

It’s fair to say that Bruce and Mark aren’t exactly on the same page.  Bruce walks us through a four-pronged argument in favour of the demise of the traditional partnership whilst Mark disagrees, highlighting the weaknesses in corporate structures and reminding the reader that the Magic Circle hasn’t exactly fared badly over the last 25 years.

I won’t attempt to summarise the well-argued points that both Bruce and Mark make in more detail but I would like to highlight an important omission from the debate.  Which is the voice of the client.  What does the client want from ‘tomorrow’s law firm’?

As someone working in so-called ‘new law’, you’d be forgiven for assuming that I’d join Bruce’s side of the debate and be quick to dance on the grave of the traditional law firm structure.  One of my own most-read (but least popular!) posts dates back to 2011 when I still wore a GC hat and decided to have a pop at law firm PEP so I’m not beyond a poke at the law firm model myself.  But, I’m not going to do that.  In fact, I’m not going to take sides in this debate becauses as Jeremy Hopkins of Obelisk rightly notes in the comments:

“The whole structure thing is a red herring”.

I spent 13 years working in-house and what mattered to me when working with legal service providers (I deliberately avoid using the term law firms) can be summarised as output and value.

When undertaking complex M&A or litigation, did I care about the partnership structure of the Big Law firm I instructed?  No.  When I needed additional bandwidth for business-as-usual work, did I care about the corporate structure of the ‘new law’ service providers I turned to?  Of course not.   And I bet very few GCs give the whole structure issue very much thought at all.

What matters more than structures is business models.  What matters is legal service providers deciding what it is they do well and how best to deliver that in the simplest way possible for their clients.

Look at most of the ‘new law’ providers like the LODs, Obelisks and Radiants – we know what we are good at, we know where we want to be fishing and our business models facilitate that.  Look at the Magic Circle or law firms which are grown up enough to recognise they have sector strengths – equally they know what they are good at too and their partnership structure is no obstruction to them achieving that.

Bruce’s article is merely the hors d’ouvre to a wider debate at the The Lawyer’s Business Summit which I hope takes more time to explore the client’s perspective on this.  Mark certainly asks the right questions in his post:

“Why would clients be better off if law firms acted like corporates?  Would the client get better service, lower cost, better product?  There isn’t a shred of evidence nor any reason to think that law firms would deliver better service or products if they were constituted as corporates instead of partnerships.”

Mark may be right, but equally where is the evidence to demonstrate that traditional partnerships are the most effective vehicle for service delivery?

Both Bruce and Mark conclude with a quick look at the usual reference points for corporate success – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google et al.  Bruce suggests part of their success is down to their corporate (non-partnership) structure.  Mark disagrees.  The red herring has reared its rotting neck again.  The Amazon et als do not succeed because of their structure.  They succeed because they not only know what their customers want, but more pertinently they continually invest in knowing what their customers don’t even know they want until they have it.  This is called product development or R&D in most sectors.

When I was a GC looking at professional life through a client lens, the best external advisors helped make my job easier.  They did this by knowing what I needed, in the very best cases before I did.  As someone helping to run a client-focused business, this is always front of my mind.  Business models and product development facilitate effective client service far more than corporate structures ever will.