Not all revolutions involve mass protest and angry mobs. If you are a lawyer, then you have been living in evolutionary times for the last few years. And now, the pace of that change is picking up with evolution giving way to revolution.
Gone are the days of one firm-one career; the days when moving between firms was frowned upon; the days when firms would “carry” underperforming partners. Law firms have toughened up, become much more commercial and lawyers have become clinical and hard-headed in pursuing a course that works best for them.
Now ABS is spearheading an irresistible revolution. Gradually it is becoming harder for major corporate firms to dismiss the change that is underway. Those who see the news that Russell, Jones & Walker is to be taken over by Australian firm Slater & Gordon as a consumer-market driven deal only should beware. Such thinking is fundamentally flawed, in my view.
It may not happen overnight but the effect of the revolution exemplified by firms such as RJW, Irwin Mitchell and Silverbeck Rymer will ripple outwards until it affects even the most corporate of corporate law firms.
What will that change look like? In the firms in the vanguard of external ownership and /or external investment we can expect to see significant development in the way those businesses are run, how efficiently they get products and services to market and the rise of fellow, but different, professionals.
Law firms are unusual in the corporate world in expecting one class of professional to multi-task across a range of different disciplines. The law firm partner (or aspiring partner) must be good at the law and also excel at marketing (‘selling’ would be more accurate but is still not a word lawyers find comfortable); finance, people management, premises management…the list goes on.
The ABS world allows professionals from different skills backgrounds to aspire to partnership or its equivalent. Lawyers will be released to do what they do best. The possibility of share ownership or share options (doubtless a more attractive route than partnership) will make the legal sector a magnet for finance, HR, marketing and other professionals of a calibre as yet unseen in the legal sector.
At the same time lawyers, many of whom have already questioned or been frustrated by the partnership system, will spy attractive, realistic alternatives towards career progression.
The old partnership model, if not broken, is limping along. Why, when the prospect of share ownership or share options was on the table, would you opt for a restrictive alternative that gave you little prospect of getting your money out?
The meteoric rise in the success of virtual law firms shows that lawyers with self-belief and a client base can break free and exercise greater control of their working and home lives. They have realised how to capitalise on that precious thing – the client relationship – in a way that works well for the client and for them outside the straitjacket of partnership.
Attitudes must change. Lawyers used to “doing it all” must prepare to relinquish responsibility and status in some areas. They must get used to a professional equality which exists in the boardrooms of their clients but no so far in partnerships. It means they can once again concentrate on being legal experts and trusted advisers.
Law firms have long bemoaned the fact that they are 10 years behind accountants in terms of commercial development. Now they are on the cusp of a radical change which could see them soon outstrip their accountancy counterparts and be pacesetters for the future.
Mike Jones, CEO, IV League Talent