Restoring a future for law

I was privileged earlier this month to be invited to deliver the keynote address at the 2013 Futures Conference organised by the College of Law Practice Management and held at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.  My theme was the future of law.  The speech is available as a video (starting about 15 minutes in and with microphone on at around 16:30 minutes!).  However, I also thought it would be worth writing it up as a paper (which is not a direct transcript).  It’s available here.

In summary, the paper addresses three themes: (1) What is Law for?  (2) What are lawyers for?  (3) The Future.  The first two questions to my mind provide necessary answers to the fundamental question, What next for Law?  For each theme, I suggest a proposition.  The substance of the argument is that both law and lawyers have lost sight of their true purpose and that reconnecting with both is essential to enabling a meaningful and worthwhile future for law.

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Law firm partnership: the Grand Delusion

It might not feel like it to some, but the economic environment for large law firms has been benign for a long time. It has been difficult not to make money. According to Legal Business, the top 100 UK law firms (that is, less than 1% of the 10,000 or so in the UK), still manage to gross over £17.5 billion, even in these supposedly tough economic times. That’s at least 50% of the total value of the legal economy. And for the more than 8,000 equity partners in those firms, this produced an average net profit share (PEP) of almost £650,000. By most people’s reckoning (even in the world of clients), that’s a lot of money for a lot of people – and it is only an average. It’s not so much the size of any individual reward that’s the issue (the range is reported as £138,000 to £1,840,000 – and it’s no longer Slaughter and May, or any other Magic Circle firm, at the top): rather, it’s the sheer number of people who are able to extract this level of averaged reward in a reactive service market that is dependent on client activity.

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The mirage of ownership

This year has started with a flurry of activity and announcements that give the lie to any notion that ABSs will be a damp squib and of no consequence, or that external capital will not be interested in law firms. So far, so good. What I want to explore here is whether external capital should be interested (at least without deep and meaningful enquiry into its target).

In founder-led firms, ownership has real meaning and value. The founders are responsible for developing clients, running the business, and making sure work is performed at a profit. These businesses usually respect the role that everyone plays, and they present an exciting, challenging, and motivating environment. The connection between effort, investment and return is often close and evident.

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