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#BigLaw is far from dead

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Has the death knell of #BigLaw been rung too early?

Despite all rhetoric to the contrary, three reports published within the past week would suggest that the business model of #BigLaw is far from dead.

  1.  Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group report*

The first, published in the American Lawyer, was Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group‘s quarterly report on financial performance in the legal industry.

While this report headlined as ‘Despite Growth, Law Firm Forecast Dims for 2015‘, it is worth noting the following three paragraphs from the report:

“Looking at the results by firm size, the Am Law 100 firms saw demand and revenue momentum build. For the Am Law 1-50, part of the positive momentum is due to some moderation in 2014 results from the first quarter to the first half. The Am Law 100 firms are also better poised than smaller firms for near-term revenue growth, given that they had comparably larger inventory increases (especially in accounts receivable) at the end of the second quarter.

The Second Hundred was the only segment that saw a drop in demand. It also had the lowest increase in inventory (2.3 percent), so the third quarter will likely be particularly challenging for these firms.

Despite the momentum generated by the largest firms, it was the niche/boutique firms that had the strongest first half overall. Revenue was up 7.0 percent on the strength of a shortened collection cycle (compared with a lengthening for the Am Law 100 and Second Hundred segments), as well as modest increases in demand and rates. The niche/boutique firms also posted the smallest increase in expenses, 1.9 percent, creating a substantial widening of the profit margin. Because of the accelerated inventory turnover and only modest improvement in demand, however, inventory for these firms was up only 2.8 percent. These smaller firms may therefore find the second half of the year more challenging than the first half.”

So, while mid-tier firms appear to see revenue in decline, the top-end of town was actually seeing demand and revenue momentum build.

[* The results of this report are based on a sample of 177 firms (83 Am Law 100 firms, 45 Second Hundred firms and 49 niche/boutique firms)]

2.  BTI Consulting report**

The second report is a snippet from BTI’s Annual Survey of General Counsel and goes under the bye-line: ‘Large Law Edges Out Mid-Sized Firms for New Work, with Higher Rates‘.

Here, BTI Consulting’s research found that:

“60% of law firm hires went to larger law firms (650 lawyers or more) in the last year. Clients report hiring large law as a result of increased and more pointed attention—think industry knowledge and more specific discussion of company issues. Think less about your firm statistics and more about the people to whom you are talking.”

Possibly more damning, however, was the observation that:

“The onus is on mid-sized firms to do better. Clients expect mid-sized firms to bring more client focus and more business understanding than large law—but are not always getting what they expect. And, mid‑sized firms have to demonstrate vastly better understanding of their potential clients’ targeted objectives than large law.”

[** Research is based on 280 in-depth interviews with corporate counsel at companies larger than $750 million in revenue as part of BTI’s ongoing Annual Survey of General Counsel.]

3. CommBank Legal Market Pulse Conducted by Beaton Research + Consulting

The last report is a little closer to home, Q4 2014 results from CommBank’s Legal Market Pulse conducted by Beaton Research + Consulting.

I’ll most likely review the findings of this report more closely in a post later this week – and it may even be interesting to compare them against previous Q2  & Q3 reports – but for the purposes of this post I believe we don’t really need to go past the following infographic from the report:

CBA Q42014 Graph

which would certainly seem to indicate that “top-tier” firms are far happier with overall FY2014 results than their “mid-tier” cousins.

Bringing it all together

So, what does this mean?

To my mind what these three reports cumulatively evidence is this:- while #NewLaw may have arrived, and while it may be here to stay, what is increasingly clear is that #BigLaw is not the market segment that needs to be concerned with this development.

Nope, dig a little deeper and I think you’ll find that it is actually Managing Partners in firms with revenue in the A$20-A$70 million range who will be having a lot more restless nights sleep…

“You actually need to be in Asia to understand Asia.”

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“You actually need to be in Asia to understand Asia. You cannot look at it from a distance, or certainly run a business in Asia from a distance. So, unless you are actually in Asia and focused on Asia and the different markets in Asia, it’s very difficult to understand the different markets, their stages of development, and how you need to run your business in those markets. And certainly you can’t do that from London or New York. That’s a fundamental point.” – Stuart Fuller, King & Wood Mallesons

The above quote, which I couldn’t have put better myself, is from an interesting interview between columnist David Parnell and Stuart Fuller, Global Managing Partner of King & Wood Mallesons (‘Stuart Fuller Of King & Wood Mallesons, On Vereins and Succeeding in China’s Legal Market‘) posted to the Forbes website on 20 July 2015.

A lot can be said about the ‘Mallesons’ strategic approach to Asia (or, probably more to the point, the lack of it) in its days as ‘Mallesons Stephen Jaques’ – when the firm was rumoured to be heavily courted by the likes of Clifford Chance and Linklaters in the UK – but since the tie-up with King & Wood (and the subsequent merger with SJ Berwin), the firm that is KWM, as it is now affectionately known, has certainly turned a corner, got its strategy ducks lined up and come a long way.

To my mind evidence of this is clear in the following two paragraphs by Fuller:

“Secondly, it’s a business model issue. If you come into Asia and run a Western business model, then you are likely to lose money. That’s quite difficult for many of the international firms because they have such powerful and strong business models in their home markets, and they export them to the rest of the world.

Thirdly, some markets are more developed than others, so if you come into Asia and think that because the law firms are younger, that they are less developed, or frankly, in some ways less professional, then you’ll be surprised. There are firms here — us for instance — who have 1200 lawyers and 2000 people across 12 cities in China alone. We have an impressive international business in China operating at an international standard. There are a number of firms across the market like us, and I think that is a surprise to Westerners.”

Absolutely spot on!

Indeed, probably the only thing missing from Fuller is the strength that relationships play in the overall marketplace throughout Asia – both at government level and in many of the region’s family run businesses.

Then again, possibly that’s what Fuller is eluding to when he says:

“And for Western business coming into Asia, the big thing you need to know is how to get things done. The system is different. It’s the lore as much as the law.”

In any event, it is clear that KWM has moved forward a long way since 2012, and I’m not sure the rest of the pack are giving this firm the appropriate credit they deserve.

A quick test to help determine if you’re providing value to your client

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In today’s legal world you often here people talking about “doing more for less” and/or that they are providing “value” to their clients, without much of an explanation as to what constitutes “value” – with the best shot usually being:

value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder“.

Indeed many thousands, if not millions, of words have been written about making sure you “add value” – not to be confused with “added value”, which is a whole different subject – but very few of those written words have made any real attempt [from what I can see] to try and nail down a definition of “value” from a client’s point of view.

And while there is little doubt that every single person’s definition of value will be different – and in many cases, each individual person’s definition of value will alter depending on the circumstances they face at the time they are asked to define “value” to them – the following two-part questionnaire suggested by Nathaniel Slavin (of Wicker Park Group) in his recent post on the Bloomberg Big Law Business website, ‘The Perception of Value Differs Among Clients‘, probably goes closer than anything I’ve seen so far to answering this conundrum:

  1. Does my lawyer understand how I define success and all the myriad components that impact that success?; and
  2. Do they accomplish that goal in a manner, financially and otherwise, that helps us further our business goals?

And if, as a private practising lawyer, you can answer “yes” to both those questions – while you cannot be certain you are delivering “value” – you can be pretty sure you are delivering overall client satisfaction levels that are going to get you as close as you can possibly get to a modern day definition of “delivering value to your client“.

 

Your law firm’s brand recognition: How much does it really matter?

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Earlier today Dr George Beaton (@grbeaton_law), Partner in Beaton Capital and an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, posted the following question to Twitter:

“Which firm is the ‘world’s strongest’? Skadden or Baker & McKenzie or Jones Day. Confusing”

George I

With a twitter pic link to an article on the Global Legal Post website that contains links to the following “Related stories”:

George II

Leaving aside the issue of financial strength, as George’s tweet clearly infers brand strength, the question I always ask when I see news items and survey responses of this nature is this:

Does it really matter?

And the answer to that really depends on what my firm’s overall strategy is.

Taking a step back, whenever I’m asked in my role as a business development consultant by law firm partners of the importance of such survey findings I will often respond by asking them the following question in return:

Imagine we are on a long distance flight on an important business route – say Sydney to London or Tokyo to New York. Now, say I give out a questionnaire to all 300 plus passengers on that plane asking them the simple question of whether or not they have heard of your firm. Would you prefer:

A. a greater percentage of passengers in first class to have heard of you?

B. a greater percentage of passengers in business class to have heard of you? 0r

C. a greater percentage of passengers in economy class to have heard of you?

Now if your firm’s business plan is to be doing “premium work for premium clients”, then my guess is you’d want a greater percentage of first class passengers to have heard of you. Similarly, if your business plan is to be working with the top ASX 200 companies, then I would hazard a guess you would want to be known by both first class and business class passengers, with the edge being on the greater brand recognition among the business class passengers. Finally, if your firm’s business plan is to be a leading B2C law firm, that I’m guessing you wouldn’t mind if your brand is widely recognised by the economy class passengers.

A very simplistic way of looking at this issue? Very much so.

But, at the end of the day, despite headlines that read ‘Top legal brands grow 45pc faster than others over last four years‘, I’m very much of the view that surveys of this nature fail to ask a more critical question, namely:

Do you regularly, or have you ever, instructed one or more of these firms you have heard of in the last three years?

Because, does it really matter if you have heard of me but never given me any work (ie, fed me)?

And all of this is before we get into the even more interesting discussion of whether or not you instruct individual lawyers (lawyer name [brand] recognition) – either at my firm or elsewhere – regardless of which firm they work for (lateral hire movements)?

After all, we have a long flight ahead of us…

The two types of efficiencies law firm associates need to become familiar with…

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Really interesting article [‘What Associates Should Know About In-House Rates and Efficiencies‘] by Gina F. Rubel was published overnight (7 April 2015) on The Legal Intelligencer website – discussing the two types of efficiencies that law firm associates should become familiar with – contains a gem of a quote from an in-house general counsel that I wanted to share/pass on.

First, to put some context around the quote below by Gino Benedetti, as Rubel states:

“There are two types of efficiencies with which lawyers need to be familiar. The first is general efficiency, which is the state or quality of being efficient and the actions designed to achieve optimal results. The second is economic efficiency, which requires optimal production and distribution of a firm’s resources.”

And while both are extremely important to in-house counsel, the following quote in the article by Gino Benedetti, General Counsel of SEPTA, should give some indication to private practice law firm associates which of the two bears more commercial importance to their in-house clients:

“Associates should understand that every case does not require a full-court press,” said Gino Benedetti, general counsel of SEPTA. “Associates add value when they think creatively by identifying the core issue in dispute and focus their case work on things that impact that issue. Often, associates work on an aspect of the case that does not have any meaningful impact on the ultimate outcome. So, associates should appreciate that their time may be less expensive, but that does not justify inefficiency. Associates should communicate often with the partner or the client directly so that the client’s objective is understood and the work is driven by that objective.”

If you haven’t already, I’d like to suggest you go over and read the entire article. It’s full of sage advice from several in-house GCs.

In the meantime, if you are a private practice law firm associate, the next time your supervising partner asks you to undertake a task on behalf of your client why not ask yourself which type of the two types of efficiency you are going to bring to the task…?

In 2015 the challenge we face is ourselves

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Happy New Year to you all.

At this time of year you’ll likely read your fair share of articles predicting what the year ahead will bring. You may even read the odd article or two on the trends that are likely to impact on our business during the course of this year.

I should state for the record that I enjoy reading these articles and in many cases the predictions are not too far off the mark.

Indeed,  in previous years I would have been one of the first to gaze into my crystal ball and give you my prediction on the 10 or so issues that we are most likely going to face in 2015.

But not so this year.

To my mind the biggest challenge we, as business developers, face in 2015 is the fact that our business development efforts have been missing their mark in recent years.

To be clear, this is not a message I’m sending out there as a business developer.

I wish.

No, this is something our clients are telling us loud and clear.

In short, we, as business developers, have not been listening to what our pay masters are telling us.

Crucially, in 2015 we are also likely to see our marketing and business development messages lost in the noise surrounding chatter around AEC, ASEAN (as the region decides whether 2015 really is the year) and other such regional and global initiatives (Free Trade Zones being one).

While each of these will undoubtably be important factors for our business over the next 12 months, it is my belief that none is likely to lead to our down fall.

For the answer to that question, again we only need look at the resounding message being sent to us by our clients (yes, our clients), over a prolonged period now:

business development activities by law firm [in Asia] in 2014 missed their mark.

In 2015 then, we business developers need to be lifting our game and constantly asking:

what can we, as a law firm, be doing differently that will help our clients win more work, generate more revenue, and earn them higher rates of profitable return?

Alternatively, carry on as normal in 2015 and don’t be surprised if, at year-end, this is the result:

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

-Henry Ford

Which ‘top’ Australian law firms are struggling to enter Asia?

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The headline of the lead-off item in Friday’s (8/8/2014) Global Legal Post was:

Top Australian firms struggle to enter Asia

Pretty strong stuff, made all the more so by the first line of the post, which reads:

“BigLaw Australia has been ‘bitterly disappointed’ at its limited success in entering Asian markets, according to business consultant Dr George Beaton.”

The post left me wondering:

  • which ‘top’ Australian law firms are they referring to?, and
  • is it fair to say that “BigLaw Australia” has been ‘bitterly disappointed’ at its limited success in entering the Asian markets?

So, over the weekend I decided to take a look at this more closely. And, for the purposes of the remainder of this post I have limited my research to:

  • independent ‘Australian’ law firms (i.e., not international firms with an Australian presence),
  • with a presence on the ground in Asia (i.e., not looking at firms’ informal or formal referral arrangements – such as Advoc Asia, Lex Mundi or PRAC, which will likely be the subject of a future post).

Also, in undertaking this I have used the most recent ‘Top 10 Independent Australian Law Firms by Revenue’ list I could find – in this case, complied by the excellent Yun Kriegler (aka @TheLawyerAsia) in her 30 June 2014 analysts post for The LawyerAustralia: medium pace’.

So, here goes:

Top 10 Independent Australian Law Firm by revenue

Offices in Asia

1. Clayton Utz* None
2. Allens** Beijing, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Port Moresby, Singapore, Ulaanbaatar
3. Minter Ellison*** Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Ulaanbaatar
4. Corrs Chambers Westgarth None
5. Gadens Singapore, Port Moresby
6. Gilbert & Tobin None
7. HWL Ebsworth None
8. Maddocks None
9. Sparke Helmore None
10. McCullough Robertson None

* Clayton Utz hit the headlines earlier this year for scratching it’s HK association with Haley & Co. but I’m not sure this one incident is enough to warrant a headline like that above.

** Given Allens tie-up with Linklaters, it’s questionable how ‘independent’ the firm remains.

*** as far as I can see, Minter Ellison’s Asian offices are not financial integrated with the Australian operations.

——-

So,

  • 7 out of the Top 10 Independent Australian Law Firms by revenue have no on the ground presence in Asia at all,
  • for 2 out of the 3 that do have on the ground presence in Asia, it is questionable how financially linked their Asian offices are to the Australian operations, and
  • out of the 7 that currently have no on the ground presence, only Clayton Utz looks like it has attempted to create any on the ground presence in the past few years.

Which essentially leaves Gadens, listed at #5 on the list, as the only independent Australian law firm with any on the ground representation in mainland Asia itself (Singapore, where it doesn’t appear to have a local Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) licence).

Overall then I think it is fair to say that that top Australian laws firms have not struggled to enter Asia – because they are simply not there in the first place and many of them have not even made an attempt to be there!

Is it also fair to say then that:

“BigLaw Australia has been ‘bitterly disappointed’ at its limited success in entering Asian markets”?

I’m not sure, because when you look at the published strategy of leading independent Australian law firms there appears to be three different approaches being adopted:

  • First, firms who are aligning with referral groups, such as Lex Mundi mentioned above,
  • Second, firms who are working off informal referral arrangements with firms operating in the Region, and
  • Third, firms who have decided to stay 100% Australian and are not looking at Asia in any great way for future development.

And so the honest answer is that this will take further analysis.

Now, if we were looking at how happy global firms with an Australian presence were with their Asian operations, then this would be a completely different post!

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