The case for ‘micro’ law firms – small, boutique practices spun out of larger firms – is growing as lawyers struggle to control the ‘Leviathan’ of big practices, a top academic has argued.
Professor John Flood of Westminster University, one of the leading thinkers on the development of legal services, argued that while most of the alternatives to so-called BigLaw are based on technology with intensive outsourcing, “they aren’t the only way of organising the delivery of legal services”.
The boutique trend has been noticeable for some years, and Professor Flood was speaking in the wake of the announcement of the by heavyweight Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer partners.
One of the key problems with BigLaw is inherent in its name, he said – it’s big, and “large organisations are hard to change”.
He continued: “A key dilemma with BigLaw is that in essence it is a set of interlocking networks that both vie and compete with each other. The result is that fission is common, and fusion is less so. Its main form of remuneration–profits per equity partner – enforces short termism and low thresholds of loyalty.
“Even the moves from traditional partnership to more bureaucratic forms of partnership are failing to solve the problem.”
As a result, the rise of the boutique or ‘MicroLaw’ is being seen as a way to resolve some of these issues, Professor Flood said.
He drew an analogy with the Bar – “small groups of lawyers in small offices depending largely on referrals from other lawyers”.
He said: “And this is what MicroLaw can do: cases can be referred to it without fear of poaching clients and conflicts conundrums can be outsourced. Most importantly the client will be dealing with the key lawyer, not a junior associate being trained at the cost of the client…
“There is no end to lawyers. We will always need lawyers. No society could function without them and, no, they can’t all be killed. Lawyers are bad at organising themselves and have created their own Leviathan which they seem to be unable to slaughter. Nor is technology the answer, although it is tremendously helpful. Lawyers need to get back to doing what they do best. The law.”
However, Professor Flood told Legal Futures that he does not predict catastrophe for BigLaw, as some do.
“On the contrary I think some type of BigLaw is necessary if only for referrals. Secondly I think BigLaw is important as it’s probably going to remain the key supply source for MicroLaw, as it is for ‘NewLaw’ enterprises, such as Axiom. Finally there will be transactions like major privatisations or M&As or big IPOs that will need the scalability of BigLaw.
“Having said that, however, if we take BigLaw as primarily sets of interlocking networks that comprise the ‘firm’, it should be possible in the future to have interlocked micro firms that fuse for particular deals.”