Monday, April 20, 2009

Law Firm Economic Cycles Part IV

Here’s my fourth and final post in a series offering findings from analyses I performed last fall as my law firm clients were considering how best to respond to the economic downturn. Seven months later, some of my findings from last fall look like a big duh, although others still offer useful insights. (For more details and caveats about this series, read the past three posts at this blog.)

1. Many firms will return to a single equity partnership tier.

In the nineties, law firms created non-equity partnership tiers as a tactic to elevate their profits-per-partner performances. The number of non-equity partners in law firms grew in the 2000s, those ranks filled by reliable technicians who did good work and supplemented labor gaps unmet by the associate talent wars.

As a result, many firms now have expensive, middle-aged legal work forces with reduced appetite and aptitude to become equity partners. These non-equity partners supervise associates, a useful function, but one that has an unintended consequence of blocking mentoring of associates by partners who are business owners, a distinction I think is important. It’s interesting that law firm associates’ widespread and vocal dissatisfaction with their professional lot coincides with their greater insulation from equity partner mentoring.

Although few firms have yet announced taken they will action to eliminate completely their multiple partnership tiers, I have long heard firm leaders talk about their desires to return to a smaller, single equity partnership structure for a variety of reasons. Therefore, I view some of the late 2008 and early 2009 partner downsizings as not only housecleaning and paring of practices, by efforts to reduce these non-equity partnership tiers.

2. Legal marketing and business development functions will continue to evolve.

During the recession of 1990-91 and through the nineties, law firms began to engage marketers and marketing methods from other industries. This first wave of professional legal marketers focused on basic marketing services—promotional events, marketing communications, public relations, and branding. Marketing services have expanded over the years to include sales and sales support, decentralized marketing support for practice and industry groups, market research, in-house client feedback programs, and key client programs.

I predict that in the current downturn law firm marketing will undergo a second renaissance. Marketing contributions that were valued 15-20 years ago probably will not make a big difference this time around.

Going forward, competitive firms will double down with even more professional sales support and coaching, key account management, and much more sophisticated competitive intelligence functions. These skill sets will help firms to acquire, expand, and defend their best client relationships. These functions will also help firms add badly needed rigor to their business planning function.
Strategy, long pooh-poohed by most firm leaders, is finally seen to be important at both practice group and firm-wide levels. During this global recession and the new-world recovery to follow, law firms now need the early-mover and better execution advantages these functions offer.

And with print journalism on its last legs, law firms’ traditional PR programs will have no choice but to embrace Web 2.0 tools and activities to support the firm’s and individual lawyers’ institutional and personal brands through digital promotion and virtual word of mouth.

Conclusion: Recessions Offer a Chance to Step Forward

Recessions offer opportunities for a law firm to emerge stronger than its competitors. Certainly, a law firm is obliged to do whatever it must to survive in the short term. But the greater challenge for law firm leaders and their advisors is to find and take those positions (invest in resources) that will take advantage of changes wrought by the recession and the eventual recovery. Firms that will be stronger after this recession are those that find and tap new opportunities at the intersection of otherwise disconnected areas of expertise, where change is happening that they can exploit. (USC business school professor Dick Rumelt describes this approach to successful strategy in an excellent McKinsey Quarterly interview

The changes this recession introduces to law firms are nearly limitless—energy and environmental changes, client industry changes, political changes, legislative and regulatory changes, dramatic changes in communications and news channels, as well as changes in the legal talent pool, law firm structures, fee arrangements, business processes, and legal technology.

Lessons from the 1990-91 recession tell us that fifteen to twenty years from now, at least a fifth of today’s “leading law firms” will no longer be around, having dissolved or been acquired by stronger firms. Many others will have fallen one or more quartiles in the rankings that matter most—firm revenue, revenue per lawyer, and profits per equity partner. But still others will have ascended dramatically, having done what firms like Latham, Orrick, Dechert, Goodwin Procter, and Quinn Emanuel did in the last fifteen years—finding and tapping new opportunities at the intersection of otherwise disconnected areas of expertise, where change is happening that they can exploit.

No comments: