Flood of lawyers swapping traditional firms for fee-share alternatives

Hume: Model continues to thrive

Lawyers continue to leave traditional law firms for fee-share practices in large numbers, with one of them hiring more last year than any law firm in the land.

Codex Edge found that more than twice as many lawyers opted to leave traditional firms last year to move to fee-share or ‘platform’ law firms than moved in the other direction.

Setfords hired nearly 150 lawyers in 2023, ahead of DWF and DAC Beachcroft, the next two biggest recruiters in 2023.

Two other platform firms, Taylor Rose MW (which runs a parallel traditional practice too) and gunnercooke were also in the top 10 hirers.

Researchers said the “vast majority” of the 463 lawyers leaving traditional firms for fee-share firms last year were senior, with at least eight years of PQE, and “many with significant followings, so a significant loss to those firms”.

The ‘big four’ platform firms in terms of headcount – Setfords, Taylor Rose, Keystone and gunnercooke – were “some way ahead” in terms of size, with 492, 470, 453, and 447 lawyers respectively.

Behind these were three ‘mid-tier’ firms, Spencer West (208), Excello Law (170) and Nexa Law (144), and four with more than 50 consultants: Temple Bright (79), McCarthy Denning (78), Davitt Jones Bould (67) and Bexley Beaumont (66).

Within these largest firms, Bexley Beaumont and Spencer West had the highest compound annual growth rate in 2023, even though Setfords recruited more in absolute terms.

Among the smaller fee-share firms, Woodstock Legal and Studio Legal were the fastest growing.

In total, there are more than 3,500 lawyers working at platform firms.

Codex Edge – whose software tool, ATLAS, tracks over 150,000 lawyers at 15,000-plus firms – said platform firms were most likely to recruit from smaller practices and other platform firms. Around 40 lawyers moved from the top 50.

The research said: “We can see that 2023 saw a continuation of the trend towards the platform model by lawyers at ‘traditional’ firms. In fact, more than twice as many lawyers opted to leave ‘traditional’ firms to move to platforms than moved opposite direction.

“This played out across all major firm ‘types’ except for ‘magic circle’ and in-house. Owing to the nature of the offering (where bringing a strong following is an important element), it is not surprising that in-house lawyers do not make the move in the numbers of their private practice counterparts.

“Indeed, ‘in-house’ is the only firm type that saw a net outflow of lawyers from the platform sector during 2023.”

The large firms all achieved retention rates of over 85%, which researchers described as “very impressive” given that, for many new hires, it was their first taste of working in a fee-share environment. For some of the smaller firms (sub-50 consultants), retention was 100%.

In terms of the work carried out at platform law firms, residential and commercial property led the way, by a large margin, with 807 and 740 lawyers working in those specialisms respectively, compared to 477 for commercial litigation, the third most common type of work, and 427 for corporate.

This was followed by employment, commercial contracts, family and private client.

Chris Hume, CEO of Codex Edge, said the research clearly demonstrated that the platform model continued to thrive and was a “growing and increasingly significant” part of the UK legal landscape.

“The coming year will no doubt also offer up many different challenges for operators in the sector. Amongst these, increased regulatory oversight will likely feature, as the sector becomes more and more ‘on the radar’.

“The phenomenon of lawyers working across multiple platforms may become less popular as compliance departments grapple with the challenges this presents.”

Mr Hume predicted “increased differentiation”, with specialised firms developing in the sector, much as among traditional firms. “One such who has already broken into the top 10 by lawyer headcount is Davitt Jones Bould, who purely focus on real estate, for example.”

Chris Setford, co-CEO of Setfords, commented: “Being named the top hiring firm of any law firm in the UK is a momentous occasion for us and demonstrates that the platform law model not only works but is now the first choice for many lawyers.”

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