Countdown to a new dispensation

An interesting piece in this morning’s FT by Jane Croft, Legal firms set for ‘Tesco law’, based on a recent survey by Smith & Williamson on whether, and to what extent, the top 100 law firms will use the deregulation of the legal services sector to raise external finance.

What is clear from this survey is that the top end of the legal market is preparing to take advantage of the Legal Services Act and, if the rumour mill is to be believed, so too are the external providers – whether Tesco, the AA etc. None of this is surprising.

But what about the “squeezed middle”? (Not mentioned by Smith & Williamson).

In my previous Lawslot Redux post, now six months old, I said that in the hurly-burly of practice it is sometimes difficult to take time out to think about what may be needed. I might also have added that the current economic environment is making fee earning work an imperative (no time for posts).

Yet as Giles Murphy of Smith & Williamson notes,

The provision of legal services will change radically in the next five years with consolidation, external capital, new entrants and mergers with other professions; those who are best prepared will be in a strong position to take advantage.

He is talking about using external finance to develop and grow faster than your rivals. And competitive advantage may be obtained in any number of other ways – but I am not convinced that the profession as a whole has yet come to grips with what the Legal Services Act will actually mean for us day-to-day. It is going to be an interesting run up to October.

More on the C word

In today’s FT Michael Peel reports on the very recent Smith & Williamson survey,

The legal industry is heading for a big shake-up as firms merge in an attempt to protect profits threatened by the credit crunch, according to a survey published on Monday.

The annual survey of leading lawyers commissioned by Smith & Williamson, the financial services group, said three-quarters of big firms expected to see more emergency deals as confidence fell, despite the industry’s supposed resilience.

This is not news to us in the profession. It has already started and the current economic mayhem is simply accelerating the inevitable.  In last week’s Law Society Gazette Lord Hunt, about to embark upon his profession-wide review of regulation, is reported as saying,

I will be listening to the views of the whole profession, and that includes the smaller high street firms as much as the global firms. I have a completely open mind about the best way forward. My message is – tell me what you think.

Let’s hope that there will still be some to tell him.

The long view

I posted some weeks ago about cultivating a habit of optimism: something which is increasingly difficult as the news gets worse, but stick at it. Keeping the morale of the team up should be one of a law firm leader’s main responsibilities.

Another responsibility, and this has to be linked in to that optimism, is to hold onto the long view. Short term solutions often seem to offer immediate relief to problems, but there is the very real risk of missing the wood completely as you concentrate on the trees.

Business planning in uncertain times is an article by David Hunt in Smith & Williamson’s Summer 2008 Professional Practices News was spot on. In it he identified two principal tasks: to reign in costs, and to seek opportunities.

Although the first of these is, in large part, obvious, Hunt adds a number of key riders

  • service delivery (i.e. people) cost, so one way of cutting costs is to get rid of them. This is being done across the profession as law firm after law firm puts in place redundancy programmes. But, as Hunt notes, “change (redundancy programmes) may be and are expensive and can have a long term impact on a firm’s culture”. I would add that you need to know what you want to be as you come out of the downturn is also important.
  • cutting discretionary spending offers an immediate opportunity to limit costs, but (again Hunt) “marketing, training, recruitment and capex become ever more critical in a downturn as they aid recovery and future expansion.”

And as for seeking opportunities, take the long view: “thought should be given to future as well as current revenues”. So consider

  • lowering prices to win work (although I would add the caveat that there is a risk that teaching your client to buy on price makes only one party, the client, happy, and may have a long term impact on the relationship
  • re-evaluate business development activity: build new contacts or markets and strengthen relationships with existing clients (back to Nick Jarret-Kerr’s admonition, which I linked to in my post Spending time wisely, back in early July, to get even closer to clients.