15 May 2000
It's official, then. The final pronouncement has again been made: the mid-sized firm is dead, or will be dead in five years' time, and if you are incautious enough to want international commercial legal advice in 2005 you will have the choice of half a dozen players. An eminent Spanish lawyer said this, apparently, so it must be true. It's not yet clear to me whether he's brown-nosing the accountants or the magic circle, but you can bet your life it's one of them. How many more times will we have to listen to this nonsense?
Right across the world, the mid-sized law firm has never been in ruder health, although, admittedly, some UK examples of the genre look pretty knackered, with the bull market only just holding them upright. Like Mark Twain, though, I feel that rumours of their demise are premature.
The world legal services sector has spawned a bewilderment of inventive offerings in response to an increasingly demanding market (where were all the e-commerce lawyers five years ago?). Who could really believe that such a complex carcass as the law industry could ever be boiled down to the glue of half a dozen giant firms?
It won't happen for a number of reasons. For a start, 21st century business requires a sufficiently large number of firms to dispense independent advice to it. In the UK mobile telephony auction no law firm was permitted by the auction rules to represent more than one consortium or consortium member. There were originally about 60 consortia and consortium members. There is an irreducible minimum number of law firms needed to prime the commercial pump; in this case, no less than 60.
Furthermore, as UK accountants have found, even with the aid of powerful 20th century English partnership agreements, the best lawyers simply won't file dutifully through the lobbies to vote yes to merger for the sake of merger - let alone the sequence of mergers that would be required to reduce the legal profession to the sort of order that appeals to our Spanish friend. Not to mention that lawyers will always leave one firm for another or even to start their own.
It is absurd to assert that survival will be exclusive to huge firms. This basic truth will perhaps be easier for some people to understand when a large firm has failed and that day will come. Remember the dinosaurs!
The plain fact remains that clients and lawyers often choose particular mid-sized firms because they like the personality of the firm concerned and the specialist offering being made by it. Actually, call them old-fashioned, but the thing about many clients and lawyers is: they quite like working with the people they like working with - and they quite like working with them more than once. They're funny like that. To assert anything else smacks of the Henry Ford approach to service, where products come in any colour you want... providing it's black.
The legal industry is pluralistic: it will always involve large firms and small ones; niche firms and full service operations; local and global players, public and private sector practices and, of course, insurance firms (for the time being at least, poor darlings!). Some of these firms will be successful and some won't be but the bottom line is that their success will not be dependent on size.
Leslie Perrin is managing partner of Osborne Clarke. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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