Succession of client relationships is a top-of-mind issue for many law firm leaders. Yet it remains a challenge for leaders to make meaningful progress, often because partners resist succession efforts. In some cases the resistance is for legitimate reasons, but in other instances it is based on myths. Our work with law firms and our interviews with the clients of law firms highlight many of these illusions.
Declining leverage is not a new problem for law firms. Over the past 10+ years, partner leverage has declined, and many firms have gradually, and sometimes unintentionally, shifted to a partner-heavy model. With the advance of non-traditional providers who often have a highly leveraged model, and intensifying client pressure for firms to improve efficiency, the time is ripe for firms to rethink and better organize their leverage model.
Making predictions for the year is always risky. When we made our predictions for 2020, we never anticipated that we would have the kind of year we’ve just completed. To our credit, we did predict that firms would need to be prepared to manage in headwinds, and that enhancing leadership diversity and reducing bias would be important priorities for law firms. Each of these turned out to be true, although we didn’t imagine the degree to which they would dominate the agenda for firms in a challenging year on so many fronts.
In recent years, we have worked on a number of law firm mergers where one of the firms was in a significantly weakened position relative to its past. More often than not, these mergers fail to move forward because there is too much uncertainty about the stability of the firm, the deterioration of its financial condition, and the questionable commitment of key partners to remain with the combined firm.
It would be a significant understatement to say that negotiating and executing a merger in the middle of a pandemic is complicated. However, it is not impossible. While we expect merger activity among law firms to be down in the second half of 2020, we are seeing an increasing number of firms begin to reinvigorate their growth strategy and consider merger.