Axiom Legal: New model army
16 June 2008
Axiom Legal’s unique approach does away with partners and billing targets and offers lawyers attractive working conditions. Could it revolutionise the profession?
Axiom Legal’s founders came up with an astonishing idea. Imagine a law firm in which there are no partners, no billing targets and no lockstep to worry about. Imagine, as a client, being able to go to that law firm to access top-quality legal work at a fraction of the cost charged by most firms.
Founded in the US eight years ago by entrepreneur Alec Guettel and former Davis Polk & Wardwell associate Mark Harris, Axiom crossed the pond last year and already has a London bank of highly experienced lawyers primed to spend bespoke periods of time in-house with clients.
It sounds too good to be true, so what’s the catch?”Mark and I got together to think about how law firms are structured and to see if we could come up with a more efficient way,” says Guettel.
“The organisational principle was to put law firms in a wind tunnel to see if the bits that were creating waste could be stripped away.”
Guettel admits that initially it was difficult for the firm to make its mark in the legal world, but points out that in the last few years the firm has signed up a range of clients such as Reuters (now Thomson Reuters), Google and General Electric.
“It was interesting to begin with - we had a lot of positive feedback from everyone we talked to, but translating that interest into people actually wanting to work with us was a challenge,” admits Guettel. “These companies had 50-year histories with the likes of Skadden Arps [Slate Meagher & Flom].
“When we had a couple of blue-chip clients that had worked with us, the whole thing flipped and it’s been growing since.”
Having entered the London market the firm is currently working with a range of companies such as online retailer Amazon, auction house Christie’s and venture capital company Balderton Capital.
The firm is clearly ambitious, and having a strong presence in London is key to realising these ambitions. As London office head Al Giles, a former Linklaters associate, says: “London is the most exciting market in the world - it’s got the best global brands. Our mission is to change the industry and if we’re going to do that we have to be at the epicentres of the world.”
The firm has only 20 lawyers in London at the moment, but Giles says the plan is to grow that number to between 35 and 40 by the end of this year.
“Growth depends on being able to find the right quality of lawyers,” he adds. ;”That’s paramount.”
So far quality has not been an issue. Nick Deeming, general counsel at Christie’s, says that even though the Axiom model is unusual, he was convinced by it at soon as he saw the firm’s lawyers’ CVs.
“It’s a bit like feeling the quality of it,” he says. “If they’d produced CVs that weren’t the right quality I would have said instinctively that it wasn’t going to work. Once I told them what I needed though, they produced three or four suitable people. Once I knew that I didn’t hesitate.”
Axiom has proved something of a lifeline for Deeming, who joined Christie’s from Linde last October and was tasked with restructuring its legal team. As he points out, such a job is easier said than done, partly due to the time lag between signing someone up and having them come on board and partly because, even when the right person for the job is found, it is rare that they can hit the ground running.
“In the US people are on shorter notice periods but here they are on three or even six months, and that’s very frustrating,” Deeming says. “The great opportunity Axiom gives is that you can say I like that and I will take it off the shelf. In that regard this is a great model.”
The fact that Axiom lawyers have the ability and experience to undertake major tasks on day one only serves to bolster that model. At the moment Deeming is working with three lawyers - Roger Wiegley, whose career has involved spells in private practice at Sullivan & Cromwell, Sidley Austin and Winthrop Stimson Putnam & Roberts, as well as an in-house stint with Credit Suisse; Nicola Steel, who trained and worked at Bird & Bird before ;becoming general counsel at Sega;and Lisa Dumas, who had a spell at Clifford Chance before becoming head of risk in Morgan Stanley’s European legal and compliance department.
For Guettel, part of the firm’s success can be put down to what it offers its lawyers.
“We offer a pretty nice mix of attributes to lawyers that are hard to get anywhere else - we pay well, we do sophisticated work for exciting clients and there’s a variety that you don’t get in-house,” he says. “More importantly, there’s a sense of self direction. We put a lot of energy into empowering people to control their own destinies.”
As Sarah Corbett, an Axiom lawyer currently working with Amazon, says, it is a win-win situation. “It’s great for senior lawyers who want to work flexibly like I do and for senior in-house lawyers who need some help,” she says.
For former Burberry general counsel Corbett, Axiom was attractive because it was precisely the kind of model she would have used when she was in-house.
“When I was in-house at Burberry, if I’d had the opportunity I would definitely have used it,” says Corbett. “You often get a spike in work but are always on a tight budget and having the option of not putting the work out to a law firm would be great.”
From a work-life balance point of view Axiom is ideal, as former Bird & Bird corporate associate Vicki Trueman stresses. Having joined Axiom at a time when her personal life required greater attention than her work life, Trueman is currently working with Balderton Capital on a part-time basis.
“I was getting married and didn’t want full-on corporate hours,” Trueman says. “The flexibility appealed to me, as did the prospect that they had this role ready and it sounded like really interesting work and a good challenge.”
It all seems more than just a little rosy but, in truth, there seems to be few downsides to the Axiom model.
Tony Williams, principal at Jomati Consultants, believes the firm is interesting, particularly as many law firms have failed to offer enough flexible working options. That said, he feels that Axiom’s weakness may lie in the fact that it will not be able to guarantee its staff work at the times they want it.
“Some people might want a degree of certainty of income, which might be more difficult in this model because it’s difficult to know who wants what when,” says Williams. “A big challenge will be ensuring the quality and consistency of its people. That means quite an extensive process of checking the people before putting them on the panel.”
Alan Hodgart, a consultant with H4 Partners, points out that, although the work might be interesting and varied, in reality it is likely to involve “holding the fort” and carrying out standardised tasks.
“The downside is that companies probably won’t be able to use this on a fairly high number of areas where it’s important to understand the company’s processes,” he says.
Both Corbett and Trueman admit that although it is great when they are on a placement, there is always the risk that the work stream might dry up.
Corbett says: “My doubt, which I still have, is that it’s all very well to work like this, but when I say to Amazon that I don’t want to do it any more will I get another contract?”Regardless, the negatives seem to be far outweighed by the positives, particularly as in-housers take an ever harder line on law-firm billing.
It may be niche at the moment, but as H4’s Hodgart says, the Axiom model could well take off.
“There’s a definite pressure on fees, independent of the current economic conditions,” he says. “Clients are good at arguing that not everything is high-value work. Axiom is an interesting niche at the moment but we could see more people moving into this area in the next five years.” n
The Axiom model
#All Axiom lawyers are employees of Axiom and receive salaries, have their practising certificates paid and get benefits such as private health insurance.
#All lawyers are seconded to firms on placements of varying lengths.
#In the UK the firm’s hourly billing rate is £75-£175.
#In the last financial year the firm’s turnover was $40m (£20.54m).