Gearing up for the cyclical downturn

In a week when the profession gathers to honour its biggest names, heaviest hitters and largest deals at The Lawyer Awards, it is fitting to celebrate the profession's contribution to the booming economy, but also to pause and reflect that booms have a nasty habit of coming to an end.

The big firms are barely able to catch breath between one huge takeover and the next, between the launch of a new company and the creation of the next international conglomerate. Fuelled by dotcom fever and the more basic – and sustainable – consolidation in sectors such as telecoms and media, the work and the fees are rolling in.

But just as the dotcom bubble has, if not burst, at least deflated a little, the fluctuations in the business cycle will mean that the amount and size of work will inevitably change.

Firms are, of course, used to this and have ridden out many such dips before. But this time they are preparing for an economic downturn with overheads they have never had before.

As our inquiry shows this week, it is not just junior lawyers who are watching their pay packets rocket. Partners too are seeing their share of the profits reach unheard-of levels.

However, partners know their rewards can go up as well as down and will plan accordingly. Management should be realising that too and putting plans in place to rebuild such levels of profitability – plans that may include cost cutting.

How is the firm as a whole preparing to restructure its overheads should the profits start to fall? In short, how are firms preparing to get themselves down from the costs tree they have climbed?