The Strategy of What You Don’t Invest In

This article was featured in the December 2018 edition of Law Journal Newsletters.

By Scott McFetters

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, law has become an unbelievably competitive business. Further, if you’re operating a law firm, you know that one of the few levers you can move to make your firm more competitive is the one labeled “technology.” However, advanced technology isn’t free. Outfitting your team with equipment that will move the needle can require an impossibly large capital outlay. The solution may not be, therefore, to purchase all that gear. It may be to lease or finance it. Leasing your technology can be a strategic decision, and a key to succeeding in an incredibly competitive market.

If you put some data behind the “competitive” adjective, even a few minutes’ research will clarify just what “difficult” means to law firms. Demand is not increasing. Rates are under pressure. And more and more hungry, motivated competitors are out there, gunning for your clients. According to a 2017 Altman Weil survey of law firms:

95% of law firm leaders think price competition is a permanent feature of the legal marketplace.

67% are losing business to in-house legal departments.

67% plan on having fewer equity partners in the future.

The introduction to the 2018 Report on the State of the Legal Market issued by the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute puts it like this:

Flat demand for law firm services, declining profit margins, weakening collections, falling productivity, and loss of market share to alternative legal service providers and others, are gradually undermining the foundations of firm profitability. For example, the annual declines in productivity since 2007 may not have been sufficient to trigger alarm in any given year. But the average lawyer is now billing 156 fewer hours than they did eleven years ago. At current average rates, this is costing firms an average of $74,100 in lost revenues per lawyer each year.

The usual tricks that have historically been up the sleeve of law firms seeking growth are no longer available. You can work your lawyers only so hard, in particular associates who are Millennials. You can’t keep automatically raising rates if you want to keep your clients. You can, and should, do a better job of business development, but in a market with flat (or even decreasing) demand, that only goes so far.

To learn more, read Scott McFetters’ latest article in Law Journal Newsletter, click here. To download a PDF of the full article, click here.