This topic continues to galvanize the profession’s attention for some time, as we in the United States watch events unfold across the pond.
There are some quite serious business obstacles yet to be adequately addressed, let alone even comprehended.
As some have noted, the proceeds of capital infusions by outside investors in large law firms will likely be applied to technology and most particularly knowledge management systems, all with a view of lowering costs to consumers of legal services. The result would be increased commoditization and reduced revenues per lawyer. Thus, the consequence of such investments may well be that unless one creates a Goldman Sachs-type leverage ratio (10,000 to 1?), an extremely unlikely result for any law firm, the investor will simply not get the anticipated return.
The practices which yield the highest return still remain in the plaintiffs’ class action bar and in big stakes high end plaintiffs’ contingency cases. Massive class actions and other high end cases chew up enormous amounts of capital. Law firms which have been active in this world have already amassed substantial capital and have the internal resources to fund these cases. Some still utilize traditional institutional lending from banks at favorable rates. Others utilize litigation funding companies which do tend to charge exorbitant interest rates; but, then again, these funding companies accept all of the risk in making non-recourse loans and at the end of the day, they do not remain partners of the law firm.
The Irwin Mitchell experiment raises some questions for which we do not quite have enough facts to make any intelligent responses, lacking adequate information. For example: Why would equity investors provide capital for a firm to enter middle market practices, where the margins are lower than in tort cases and lower than that earned at magic circle firms? In addition, we already know from several decades of experience that the ultimate additional profit to a law firm in hiring laterals is only marginally incremental, as firms are required to pay for the ramp up of the laterals and the lion’s share of profits earned by new laterals are actually paid to the laterals, with the increase in firm-wide profits is only incremental
Other comentators have noted that outside investors in a firms would exert some degree of control within a law firm and the danger he highlights is that such investors will impair the independence of the lawyers’ judgments in directing that efficiency, rather than the clients’ best interests will be a driver in handling a client engagement, all in violation of Rule 1.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct under US rules; we do know that proposed new UK rules are designed to have a different result.
But an added impediment is the preservation of client secrets and confidences. Non lawyer investor participation in law firm management necessarily makes non-lawyers privy to such secrets and confidences, with no mechanism to police the maintenance of such confidentiality by these non-lawyers.
As American baseball legend Yogi Berra said, predictions are hard, particularly about the future, my own humble prediction is that these models won’t work for traditional Big Law. That’s what I said six months ago at http://kowalskiandassociatesblog.com/2010/10/05/will-permitting-equity-investments-in-law-firms-by-non-lawyers-or-allowing-law-firms-to-go-public-have-a-significant-impact-on-corporate-law-firms/ and nothing has yet surfaced to dissuade me.
The ABS or Tesco models just won’t work for Big Law. But, they may very well for mass market, consumer oriented, commoditized practice, built on a franchise type model. Take something like legalzoom.com and open storefronts across the landscape. The margins may be small, but they are also small at MacDonald’s, KFC and so on.