The loss of £54m would not exactly bankrupt Clifford Chance, even if it was not the UK branch of a US LLP after January. In the unlikely event that the lawsuit over a Chinese power station was successful and the firm had to pay the full damages claimed, it would not threaten the future of the firm nor the personal assets of partners.
But the firm and its smaller rivals have been justifiably pulled up by the news that a UK firm is being sued by an international consortium. This year firms have built empires and global business at a rate matched only by the internet goldrush on the stock markets. Takeovers, mergers, flotations, new markets, global expansion, all at an unprecedented rate, have created a near surreal optimism.
Many analysts have quietly predicted that the internet South Sea Bubble will burst and maybe this lawsuit, like the fall in Freeserve's value shortly after flotation, is a warning sign of a similar return to reality.
The bigger the firm, the larger its reach – the more global its ambition, the more the chances of something going wrong through carelessness or through local circumstances beyond a firm's control. Firms may blithely carry on growing depending on their indemnity insurance, ticking off the days until LLPs become a UK reality and hoping against hope that either the insurance companies do not go for a massive hike in premiums or the sort of "catastrophe claim" swamps the insurance defence and threatens the partnership.
The answer is not retrenchment. There is no room for a return to small-scale, local legal business.
Neither is it chancing to luck. Firms must look at the systems they have in place to monitor standards, manage clients and caseloads and ensure that, should they face a "catastrophe claim", they can say that every effort was made to grow at a manageable rate, with an expansion plan that could be delivered in reality not just in terms of headlines.
If they don't, after LLP status is introduced partners may still have their houses and cars, but no office to drive them to.