Opinion: Small firms can walk tall

Smaller independent firms can offer good career prospects and better value for money for clients

Charles Martin, senior partner, <a class=Macfarlanes” src=”Pictures/web/o/e/g/martin_charles_150.jpg” />

Charles Martin, senior partner, Macfarlanes

At a time of consolidation among law firms, perhaps we should ask ­ourselves whether scale is always a good thing from a client perspective.

The ability to deliver globally is for many the Holy Grail of scale. Things may change in the long term, but today smaller independent firms compete successfully with global firms on consistency of service ­standards, particularly in specialist areas.

Advances in IT make it easy for these smaller firms to deliver a joined-up ’virtual law firm’ service to clients globally. Their ability to charge lower local rates and the ­elimination of the costs of running a global organisation can mean they also represent good value.

Generally, working with independent firms will reduce potential ­conflict issues. If an independent firm in a particular jurisdiction has a conflict issue it is possible to ­substitute another, something global firms cannot do.

Larger law firms can bring greater depth of resource, but the types of work and occasions on which this is truly necessary may be relatively ­infrequent. Increasing availability of pools of talented contract lawyers, paralegals and outsourcing services is narrowing the gap in this area ­between the larger and smaller firms. Smaller firms can flex their ­resources as necessary to respond to surges in client demand in areas such as the ­discovery phase of litigation or large-scale due diligence in M&A.

Brand and profile is perceived to be an advantage of scale. However, smart clients are able to get behind the brand and research the substance of what lies behind it. General counsel frequently use IT tools to share thoughts and research the reality of what a firm offers.

Talent is key to delivering the ­highest quality of client service. ­Bigger firms will not always necessarily offer their lawyers a better ­career path than smaller firms. At a time when many of the largest firms are ­reducing their partnerships it is not obvious that there is direct ­linkage between career prospects and scale. While independent firms may not ­always offer the glamour of global firms, they can offer their lawyers the ability to build a domestic client base and a practice of their own in a way that will not always fit the template of a global firm.

Larger firms need more managing. Smaller firms can offer greater partner freedom and a more ­meaningful sense of ownership and ­involvement. That may come at a price in terms of efficiency, but many smaller firms (and their partners) feel that is a price well worth paying. ­Autonomy is a key motivator for high-performing professionals.

Economies of scale are sometimes cited as important benefits of size. The reality is that the number of areas in which economies of scale apply within law firms are quite ­limited. Most costs increase broadly in line with lawyer headcount.
There are many other respects in which scale does not necessarily make for a better law firm from a client perspective.

No doubt the points I have suggested will be ­sufficient to elicit some strong disagreement from the many readers who no doubt see the world rather differently.