The End of Lawyers…..or Just the Beginning?

Al Giles managing director of Axiom for EMEA and Asia.

Al Giles
Al Giles

It’s been a depressing week for many lawyers. BLP started the trend by announcing widespread redundancies. Osborne Clarke, Wragges and others followed. A one-off announcement might be just that for any number of reasons, but taken together these have felt like a real body blow.

It’s easy to interpret this week’s news as further evidence of the structural faults in the traditional law firm model and vindication of Richard Susskind’s prediction of ‘The End of Lawyers.’ The arguments are well rehearsed. Hourly billing rewards inefficiency and discourages innovation. The focus on PEP rewards partners but penalises the other key sets of industry stakeholders – clients and firm associates. The status quo won’t change: partners who run large firms have worked decades to reap the extravagant rewards offered atop the pyramid and have little incentive to make meaningful changes during their brief tenure at the helm.

Yes, all these things are true. But, responding to this news with the refrain of “the law firm model is broken” misses the point. So too does the commentary about inevitable industry-wide contraction.

Because, it’s not industry-wide. It’s not even firm-wide. I’m confident that BLP’s Lawyers on Demand service (LoD) has not seen any cuts, in fact probably the reverse.

My point here is not to give our able competitors free press. It’s to combat the sloppy and dangerous argument that the industry is flat-lining. It isn’t. Growth is alive and well – it’s simply hidden in the long shadows cast by the traditional paradigm that has (until now) defined the industry. Evolution, which is creating the foundation for the sector’s long-term growth, is finally beginning to take shape.

Alternative Models: Axiom is now far from alone, being joined by LoD, Agile, Obelisk and many others. Each model is different, but they congregate around an attempt to strip unneeded cost from the system. And the category is expanding rapidly. Axiom has trebled in size over the last two years. Coincidentally, we hired 58 lawyers in the first quarter of this year – exactly the number being let go by BLP. Increasing applicant numbers and low attrition rates are also providing evidence that lawyers from traditional firms are finding these models attractive and sustainable career options.

Impact of External Capital and Expertise: The legal industry is large, fragmented and ripe for disruption. It will attract those with deep pockets and a longer-term view. It’s no accident that the advent of the ABS has introduced a wave of new entrants and applicants in the form of established brands including the Co-op, the AA, Direct Line and BT. In Axiom’s outsourcing business, we rarely compete with law firms but do come up against the Big 4, LPOs and consultancies that bring expertise and scale from different industries to bear.

Nearshore Regional Hubs: London might feel like the centre of the legal universe, but in Belfast and other regional hubs, there is robust hiring by traditional and new model firms alike.

So let’s not mourn the demise of the industry or indulge in too much hand-wringing over ‘The End of Lawyers.’ While we have not seen the last of the cuts and redundancies at traditional firms, we have only begun to experience the impact (and growth) from the more innovative corners of the industry. Amid the gloom, there’s real hope.