Consultant lawyers: Divided we fall?
By Oliver Brice
Oliver Brice considers whether the rise in consultant law firms is destroying the foundations of partnership
The UK’s partnership model of legal practice is one that has endured, influenced and underpinned the success of the industry for centuries. Until recently, it has been regarded as seemingly unshakeable. 20 years ago, it would be almost unthinkable this model would face an existential threat. However, partnership as the model for successful legal practice, and the signifier of individual career success, is being challenged.
As recently reported in City A.M., analysts suggest the ‘new model’ consultant firm “will become the dominant model among high street and mid-market law firms in the next five years.” In fact, the same research flagged the “poor management and outdated operating models of many law firms”, pointing to a growing feeling that many firms have failed to keep up with changing needs and expectations, not just of clients but of lawyers too.
The pandemic has put these ‘outdated’ models in the spotlight – from a lack of flexibility to gruelling hours, the legal sector is not alone in facing huge shifts in employee expectations. The so-called ‘Great Resignation’, a term coined to describe the swathes of employees gearing up to resign in the post-pandemic period, will inevitably hit the legal sector.
As Natalie Tidman recently wrote, “The model – based on delayed gratification – has served the legal industry extremely well but has been tested by more transactional and mobile attitudes to work across society and lawyers young and old. As attitudes to partnership change, the question inevitably arises as to how enduring the model will remain for attracting, retaining and motivating the lawyers of the future.”
Recent research showed 1 in 5 lawyers experienced less stress working remotely during lockdown. As such, some 85 per cent of lawyers say they want to change how they work, post-pandemic. From a growing dissatisfaction with work-life balance, to the frustration of caps to financial reward, lawyers are embracing new law models in their thousands. As a result it is estimated a third of all UK lawyers could be working under the legal consultant banner in five years’ time.
What does success look like for modern lawyers?
For centuries the measure of success for lawyers has been attaining partnership; greater financial rewards are underpinned by ownership and personal investment in a firm’s success. The reality of what this looks like for modern lawyers is somewhat less appealing than the traditional notion. From never-ending partnership meetings to gruelling hours, partnership can quickly see passionate and talented lawyers burnt out. They wonder if the blood, sweat and tears it took to make it to the top were worth it.
Not to mention, the path to reach partnership continues to be a rocky one. For example, we know the sector is still plagued by a lack of inclusivity - just recently, research showed lawyers from lower socio-economic backgrounds took a year and a half longer on average to reach partnership.
Unfortunately, there are still barriers to partnership many face through no fault of their own due to bias, conscious or unconscious in respect of background, gender, race or perceived difference. When the system isn’t rewarding those who have earned it, a new measure of success might be the answer.
That is borne out in the reports of lawyers seeking new ways of working. Today’s lawyers have a much more holistic view of success. Yes, they want fair financial reward, but they also want the freedom to determine their own ways of working. They want to deliver great services to their clients without fielding partnership administration and politics. Now, the ability to take control of your career, find balance and still reap financial reward is seen by many as the ultimate goal – one which is rewarding and achievable.
However, while dispersed, consultant law firms may seem like the answer to many of the issues of the old, the majority of such firms are missing one vital element – ownership. Arguably it is the investment, or ownership element of the traditional partnership model that has made our legal profession a global success. It is the relationship between partner and firm that ensures a law firm is more than a group of sole practitioners working under the same roof.
While modern dispersed law firms have many advantages over the traditional model, they can often lack this sense of ownership. Alongside greater flexibility, lawyers working as consultants can enjoy large fee splits – however, there’s an overall lack of interest in the firm itself.
The lack of formal partnership and shared goals can leave lawyers feeling isolated or frustrated with the lack of forward vision. The risk for lawyers leaving traditional firms is they join a model lacking any sense of collective, long-term reward. For experienced lawyers who, in traditional firms, are on their way to partnership (or may already be there), this can be a deal breaker.
Is there another way?
At Valemus we recognised the ‘traditional’ consultant model was missing a vital piece of the puzzle, and that was each individual feeling a sense of ownership and collective drive for the firm to succeed. This is why we decided to introduce an Exit Plan for our consultants, who are all partner-level. On joining, each Valemus Partner receives exit shares to ensure they feel part of something bigger, having an interest in a firm and its future. New law needn’t mean a lonely path of each for themselves - partnership in a common goal has a powerful place.
At Valemus we refer to all our lawyers as partners, as that’s what they are; experienced, talented lawyers who are at the point in their career when traditional partnership is calling, but their answer is ‘no’. No to partnerships’ archaic binds - politics, billing targets, bureaucracy and inflexibility. Instead, they are saying ‘yes’ to a new measure of success, where autonomy and freedom meets reward and ownership.
Oliver Brice is Founder and Managing Director at Valemus Law, a practising corporate solicitor and formerly Group Legal Director of the Macmillan Publishing Group and Taylor Wessing: lifestyle-law.com