The death knell for big law: premature or already ringing?

3 Sep 2013

Noam Scheiber’s July cover story in the New Republic produced such a reaction that he was driven to publish a follow-up piece just a week later, addressing the criticisms that his article had attracted from those within Big Law firms.

Considering Scheiber’s article, entitled ‘The Last Days Of Big Law’, has some harsh words for the very people that then criticised him, the fact that his article inspired some negative reaction from within the US legal industry is hardly surprising.

What is more surprising, however, is the fact that many within the industry responded to Scheiber’s article with agreement. ‘Big Law is dying’, they seemed to say, ‘Big Law does have drastic problems to contend with’. In Scheiber’s first article, the Chairman of one of America’s largest firms admits that the distinctly troubled state of Big Law is ‘not a temporary situation’.

For those in similar UK law firms, the message should also ring somewhat true. Big Law is changing here just as it is changing in the US. Larger, once untouchable, firms are having to look carefully at how they conduct themselves and whether their current models are feasible.

The reasons for this, as per the reasons in Scheiber’s article, are down to a realisation by many of Big Law’s clients that the open cheque book policy they have been involved in for so long has now ceased to be feasible.

In an economy still only just entering the long recovery stage, few businesses can justify the expenditure incurred by retaining legal counsel from above premium rate firms.

Scheiber again: ‘there are simply many, many more high-priced lawyers today than there is high-priced legal work.’

More clients are shopping around and finding a broader base of choice and service from either the few big law firms who have adapted their businesses to be attractive to today’s clients or, more likely, the attractively priced and positioned boutique firms who serve niches well and quickly.

For Big Law on both sides of the pond, the time is now to adapt to a market that has already changed. The moment that change happened, somewhere around the 2008 fiscal crisis, the death knell started ringing and at some point soon, like the most dramatic game of musical chairs imaginable, it will stop.

Those left with a seat at the table will be the firms willing to embrace change, peer closely at their internal cultures and focus their business efforts less on high prices and more on excellent service in industries where there is demand.



Philip Jepson picture

By Philip Jepson. Phil is the Chairman of Jepson Holt Ltd., which he established in 2004. His main focus in the business is helping law firms grow their businesses and lawyers develop their careers. You can find him on , Twitter & LinkedIn.