A few days ago I was talking to an adversary in an employment litigation. She's a partner with a large (700 lawyer) and very capable firm with offices in many states. I had read stories about her firm making more acquisitions of smaller practices and asked when her firm's expansion would stop. You could almost hear the shrug through the telephone. The answer: "the consultants keep telling us that bigger is better."
Now this firm is reflective of a larger trend. All across the country the big firms are expanding, often by buying up small and mid-size firms. In fact, the phenomenon has become international, with firms from different countries hooking up. But is bigger necessarily better, as the consultants tell my colleaugue's firm? Or, to pose the question from a client's perspective, is a bigger law firm necessarily a better choice for your business?
I can't prove this empirically, but my informal observations of the legal scene suggest that, as a rule, big businesses historically gravitate to comparably large law firms as their primary counsel. (And yes, I know that there are exceptions. In fact, that's the point. Read on.)
The Legal Intelligencer reports on a recent study by BTI Consulting Group that shows that "in 2006, 61.1 percent of corporate clients reported they had fired one of their primary law firms in the last 18 months — up from 53.7 percent in 2005." The corporate clients reported using an average of two "primary" firms. Do the math and you quickly realize that a lot of firms lost major client relationships last year.
Actions speak louder than words, so what are the clients telling us?
Obviously, they are willing to make changes. Why?
To get better service is one answer. But "service" is not as simple as returning phone calls and getting work done on time.
"Clients want firms that are there to help solve problems and not just there to bill hours. It's about communicating and demonstrating value, understanding the business and using a business perspective," Shunk said, adding later, "Firms that recognize how they can do that can exceed and surpass a competitor law firm."
And therein lies the opportunity for small and medium-sized firms, which often are hungrier than their larger compeitors, can be more creative in proposing solutions, and have the flexibility to respond quickly to changing situations.
And let's be honest. It wasn't so long ago that a 100-lawyer firm that would be considered mid-sized today, was a behemoth in the legal world. Firms of that size frequently handled the most sophisticated kinds of work for the most sophisticated clients. Have the requirements of business really changed so much that a 100 lawyer firm can no longer meet most of the needs of big business clients? I suspect not. The world is more complicated now, but it's not that much more complicated.
I'm interested to hear what clients think about this. Please comment with your thoughts.