Double Vision: Evolving Perspectives on Law Firms

If the legal profession is indeed driving toward a “new normal,” it has not yet resolved which road it will take. On one hand, the Goliaths continue to bulk up, and there clearly is a lot of life left in the Big-Bigger-BiggestLaw model.

2010 was a dormant year for mergers, but in 2011 the big fellas are reshaping the landscape through a plethora of mergers producing numerous offices and ever-larger footprints. The formula seems clear: create big, impressive edifices supported by humongo global platforms that justify – and compel – rate increases.

In short: old formula, done large. Big firms with a Big Brand.

Heading down the other fork is an expanding array of Davids sharpening their stones. Etherized and virtualized, some utterly devoid of bricks and mortar, these firms emphasize their nimbleness and cast their out-of-the-box value propositions by making a positive statement of what they are not: Big. Traditional. Hierarchical. Expensive.

But don’t equate that with unsophisticated or inexperienced.  A review of the professional backgrounds in the “David” firms reveals top-notch talent, one of the reasons so many companies are comfortable moving legal work to them.

We see three types of Davids. Some maintain office space but disdain hourly-billing in favor of value-based or alternative fee arrangements, some eschew bricks and mortar in favor of virtual operation, and some do both. These avant-garders will never take the big dogs down  – they are outnumbered and outgunned – but they are launching surgical strikes that are taking big bites out of the behemoths.

Perhaps best known among the smaller, nimbler “David” firms that continue to lease office space but have tossed hourly billing to the curb are:

Bartlit & Beck Raymond & Bennett
Bunker Law Group Shepherd Law Group
Donesky Law Firm Summit Law Group
Exemplar Law Partners Traverse Legal
Valorem Law Group

Other firms have migrated into the digital ethersphere, happily forsaking bricks and mortar for totally virtual operations. Among them:

Axiom Keystone Law
Clearspire Rimon Law Group
Ernst & Riley Scomo
FSB Fisher Broyles Texas Wills & Trusts
Halebury Virtual Law Partners

And there’s a subset that have done both – no bricks and no billable hours:

Bespoke Law Maryland Family Lawyer
Kimbro Legal Services  Natoli- Lapin

In listing these firms, we are neither endorsing them nor, while admitting a fondness for innovators, even suggesting that precision strikes will ultimately prevail over carpet bombing; generally this is not direct mano a mano warfare.  David has sharp aim whereas Goliath has big stones.

But the legal marketplace battlefield is certainly changing, leaving an inevitable question: where will these trends leave the middle market firms?  In an upcoming post, we will hear from a few middle market firms on their strategies to walk the tightrope between national/global footprints and virtual firms that can beat them on price.

© 2011, Edge International US, LLC.  All rights reserved.  No part of this post may be copied or reproduced without the express permission from Edge International US, LLC.

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8 Responses to Double Vision: Evolving Perspectives on Law Firms

  1. I enjoyed your post, but am pretty sure that Traverse Legal has bricks & mortar office space – http://www.growmichigan.com/CustomContentRetrieve.aspx?ID=1196035.

    Also, personal injury lawyers have been using contingency fees for years – so why is it considered “innovative” for big firms to do it. Same for criminal defense lawyers and flat fees.

    Finally, some of these firms are pretty well known, but there are a couple where I wonder if they are “firms” at all, or just (a) a glorified, high-end contract lawyer agency or (b) a conglomeration of solos working under one roof. While there’s nothing wrong with either arrangement, I hope that these entities are not deceptive in describing their set up to clients.

    • pwoldow says:

      Carolyn: Thank you for the correction on Traverse Legal. My apologies to Enrico Schaeffer at Traverse as we have discussed his offices and the famous billboard outside his window. Mea culpa, and I have made the correction in the blog text.

      Regarding fee arrangements, what I find innovative is the formation of firms around the specific commitment to use value-based fees as a vehicle to better serve clients. What I see when I look at Fred Barlit, Pat Lamb, Jay Shepherd or Jeremy Szwider (in Australia), is attorneys who had practiced successfully in more traditional settings and then left to create firms with a profoundly different approach to fees. And, in their current firms, they now use value-based fees in areas where AFAs are not traditional, e.g., corporate litigation. In my role at Edge, I counsel General Counsel and am often retained to assist them in selecting outside counsel for particular matters. In my experience, conversations with traditional law firms about fees and budgets are vastly different from those conversations with firms that have AFAs in their DNA. You would think by now (after decades of talking about AFAs and a whopper of a recession) that every firm would be conversant in value-based fees, but I have not found that to be the case.

      And, finally, I agree that anyone looking at the list of firms (or frankly ANY firm) should conduct their own due diligence. While many of my corporate clients have elected to work with listed firms, in all cases they used a thoughtful and thorough process to vet the lawyers. Thanks for that good reminder.

  2. Jeffrey Brandt says:

    Nice post Pam. One other correction if I may, on Clearspire. Having worked with them, I can assure you that while their attorneys mostly work remotely they also work from Clearspire’s downtown office in Washington DC (1747 Pennsylvania Avenue) with other Clearspire employees.

    • pwoldow says:

      Thanks, Jeffrey. That is very helpful to know. My experience has been with the attorneys working in the virtual-sphere, so I think of them in that dimension. Most of my clients who are using Clearspire have been west coast GCs, so we interfaced with the attorneys in person and by phone — all far from the DC digs. It’s great to get more information and I appreciate your input.

  3. Brad Rosen says:

    Pam–

    Nice post and nice blog. It was nice meeting you and your colleague Doug Richardson at the ACC conference earlier today.

    All the best,
    Brad

    • pwoldow says:

      Thanks, Brad. It was a pleasure to meet you, as well. And, thanks for the kind words about At the Intersection. We would love to hear how you apply the information from the ACC conference. Best, Pam

  4. Pam, a very thought provoking post that highlights why we attorneys should sit back and think about which path we want our practices to take and which is best suited to our skills and goals. It certainly has prompted me to think about that. Thank you!

    • pwoldow says:

      Thanks, Shawn, for stopping by and for commenting on the Double Vision post. With the legal marketplace offering clients so many more choices for how to get their legal work accomplished (think LPOs, virtual firms, hybrid firms like Axiom & Clearspire, alternative firms that eschew the billable hour), lawyers will really need a thoughtful approach to growing their practices. What has worked in the past must be updated to fit where we are now — with clients, value, firm profitability, and lifestyle. It’s a good time for a re-think. Best of luck with it.

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