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Insights on the “New Normal” from Law Firm Managing Partners and Corporate Counsel

Last week in my Law 2050 class we held two panels of speakers–a panel of three BigLaw managing partners on Monday (Ben Adams of Baker Donalson, Richard Hayes of Alston Bird, and Steve Mahon of Squire Sanders) followed by a panel of three in-house counsel of large corporations (Reuben Buck of Cisco, Jim Cuminale of Nielsen, and Cheryl Mason of Hospital Corp. of America). First, my enthusiastic thanks to our panelists, who provided a lively, engaging, deep, and quite candid forum for the students.

Indeed, the speakers covered so much ground I could not possibly cover it all in one or even several posts. So what rose to the top in my assessment? Four things:

  • The Rise of MediumLaw. Both sets of speakers suggested that medium-sized firms (MediumLaw) are increasingly a source of competition for BigLaw and of legal services to large corporations, confirming Richard Susskind’s prediction that, while MediumLaw firms will face pressures to consolidate, they now have “an unprecedented opportunity to be recognized as credible alternatives” to BigLaw. One reason is the basic “world is flat” effect, making it easy to access legal talent everywhere. As for legal talent, all the speakers recognized that MediumLaw is brimming with top legal talent. The there is the lower fee structure a client is likely to enjoy by hiring a regional MediumLaw to handle a matter in the region. While all the corporate counsel confirmed that “bet the company” litigation or massive, complex transactional work is likely to go to BigLaw because of its repository of experience on such matters and ability to scale up to a matter of any size, there was no question that they considered MediumLaw a substantial and growing source of their legal service needs.
  • The Corrosive Effect of Lateral Partner Movement: Both sets of speakers emphasized the importance, now more than ever, of establishing strong relationships between firm and client. The corporate counsel stressed the need for firms to “know my business,” and the managing partners pointed to many new kinds of practices they are taking to get there. And both panels identified the acceleration of lateral partner movement as one of the chief obstacles. Indeed, when asked what keeps them up at night, the managing partners concurred that the fallout from actual and potential partner exits is a constant source of stress (though I imagine each of the firms represented has done its share of lateral partner hiring).
  • Value: The corporate counsel kept coming back to their primary concern in selecting outside counsel—value, value, value. What wasn’t as clear is how clients evaluate it and how firms are rethinking how they deliver it. For example, Cisco is well-known for using fixed fees arrangements for much of its work, but one of the corporate counsel suggested that fixed fee is not necessarily the silver bullet. If the fixed fee is simply a number that aggregates the expected revenue from an hourly billing method, how is that delivering better value? My strong sense from this representative group was that while firms and clients are willing to experiment with ways to wean off of the billable hour, there is no consensus yet on what alternative fee model will consistently deliver better value over time.
  • Law Firm Financial Structure as an Obstacle to Innovation:  A strong theme the managing partners panel returned to several times was how the nature of partnerships as financial entities constrains innovation. Firms manage tax consequences by flushing out profits and limiting retained earnings, which puts a disincentive on investing in R&D and makes experimenting in costly new business models or products quite risky. To be sure, the managing partners described some innovative practices–for example, one firm maintains a “venture fund” in the form of an allotment of “billable” hours groups of attorneys can apply for to free them up for practice development projects, with the firm standing behind accounting for the hours as counting every bit as much as hours actually billed to clients. As the partner from that firm explained it, that kind of practice development project is highly valuable to the firm, but not to individual lawyers if they don’t get credit for it, so they won’t do it with this kind of incentive. Yet the appetite for that kind of innovation necessarily is limited by the partnership financial profile as well, not just by the billable hour itself.

This is just a taste of the range and depth of topics our panels covered. Again, I can’t thank them enough. as for my students, I know from the “buzz” that the panels made a tremendous impression on them. They handed in their reaction papers yesterday, so I will soon learn just what that impression was!

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