Changing times for big law?

11 Nov 2014

In September of last year, we wrote about Noam Scheiber’s article, ‘The Death of Big Law’. It seems apt, almost exactly one year later, to be reading an article in The Lawyer which almost seems to suggest that the death of Big Law might come at… the hands of Big Law itself.

Whilst Scheiber’s predictions were bold, you suspect even he did not see that coming. The article, entitled ‘Freshfields “takes on Wall Street” and wants to discard magic circle tag in US’ speaks of Freshfields desire to shed a UK institutional label which has long signified our version of US’ Big Law. Disassociating themselves from it is a departure for Freshfields for the good of their US brand, but you also wonder if there isn’t more at play closer to home.

As with our original thoughts on Scheiber’s article, the truism still rings that there are more ‘high priced lawyers than there is high priced legal work’. Though the economy is recovering, many companies are still reluctant to hand open chequebooks to lawyers again.

What’s more, with the offerings already available and forthcoming from ASB firms, many will have a choice over what to spend and where. The Magic Circle may no longer be the de facto location for many large firms’ legal expenditure and therefore the firms in question will need to show their target why they should come to them, rather than relying on that as a given. Which does beg the question, is Freshfields trying to move away from the Magic Circle tag and towards something else, as an attempt to shed the reputation that comes with it; namely of high fees?

There’s also something more at play here. The move is being positioned by Freshfield as a drive to establish themselves as having more of an international focus, rather than being City-centric. This feels like the narrowing of offering seen in other firms but, in true Big Law fashion, Freshfields have narrowed their focus by going bigger. They want to focus on internationally-mobile companies: a smaller market by number of companies but bigger in economy and scale. Trust a Magic Circle firm to flip the concept of having a specialism on its head.

As the Managing Partner, David Aitman, said about the recent moves, ‘When a major client says I’ve got something complex and multi-jurisdictional crossing many borders and the US, we would be the first firm that came to mind for that, ahead of the magic circle and ahead of a Wall Street firm.’

Freshfields have found their small niche. It just happens to be global and large.