The Business of Law Keeping Up With a Dynamic Profession


Persons unfamiliar with the "business of law" may wonder why, in one recent year, more than 14,500 lawyers changed law firms — a rate of about 1,200 lawyers every month, including more than 3,700 partners. Indeed, most laypersons presume achieving partnership status implies a lifetime commitment to the same firm.

This quaint notion from a simpler time — a time before desktop computers, electronic mail and the internet — fell away with the rise of legal recruiters and birth of a glossy publication that reports on law firm revenues, profits and ranking among peers in both categories. It was also a time before technology and diversity became significant factors in the economy and the profession.

These developments have changed the practice of law in myriad ways, including by mirroring the business environments in which it has operated. Indeed, modern corporate law firms look and function so much like the companies they serve that many now even employ C-suite executives with titles like "Chairman," "Chief Financial Officer," "Chief Operating Officer," "Chief Talent Officer" and "Chief Diversity Officer."

This article discusses how the growth and complexity of modern law firms requires young lawyers and partners alike who seek longevity to be adaptable, learn to develop business and periodically take a sober-eyed assessment of whether the path they're on is leading to their intended destination.

Not your grandpa's law firm

Many law firms now have multiple offices, sometimes dozens of them. One firm claims 70 offices, on multiple continents and in far flung countries and locales around the globe. To support and staff these expansions with seasoned talent, law firms must hire from the existing labor pool, i.e., currently employed lawyers, including partners, in the markets into which they expand.

Growth through lateral acquisition is how we arrived to the era of the 11,000-lawyer firm, hourly rates of $1,200-$2,300, revenues exceeding $6 billion and partner profits that can reach and exceed $10 million. The sheer size of some firms can be daunting. And the internal controls, procedures and financial metrics needed to manage such sprawling enterprises can make these massive law firms (legal corporations, really) feel cold and impersonal.

This is especially true for younger lawyers, associates, who depend upon the partnership and individual partners to train them and provide work to challenge and build their skills until they're able to fend for themselves. Until that time, they need a mentor or team to help nurture and develop them and to impart learned wisdom. Where this does not occur, for example where remote work rules allow lawyers to avoid the office, or where they don't feel the presence or guiding hand of a senior lawyer, young lawyers are wise to look for it elsewhere.

Need an opportunity to develop business

Another thing young lawyers need, but often don't receive, is instruction in how to develop business. This, as the years pass, becomes the yardstick by which virtually all are measured, to one degree or another. For those without their own clients or books of business, the thought and reality of always working for someone else can get old, and even engender burnout or ill feelings. Particularly where the "someone else" presents personality challenges or other impediments to a lawyer's growth and development.

Similarly, for those who feel overworked, underappreciated, blocked by conflicts or lacking sponsorship by senior lawyers — who either won't retire or transition their client relationships — having so many irritants and impediments can kill the love for one's firm. This is particularly true for the person who feels ready to step-out from behind the shadow of the senior lawyer standing ahead of them, blocking their visibility and value to clients.

Such frustrations can, and often do, lead to the search for a better opportunity. Which only makes sense where one believes important paths to realizing one's potential are blocked by persons or circumstances beyond one's control.

Why lawyers move

For partners and those with their own clients, changing firms happens for a host of additional reasons including, among other things, rate pressure, desire for a stronger, broader or more diversified platform, better practice support, higher quality associates, better culture and, of course, higher compensation. Any one of these can be a source of irritation, and trigger consideration of a move. But, when several irritants combine to adversely impact one's practice or environment, the thought of changing firms becomes more compelling and an easier conversation to have.

In the end, lawyers in small, medium and large firms move for the same reasons as people in other fields and professions: to find the platform and environment that best supports them and their practice and allows them to rise as high as their ambitions and talents will take them, consistent with their personal values.

Is your firm providing the platform and support to help lift your practice to its highest level and value? Does its culture align with your personal values? Are you more interested in working on behalf of a cause or issue larger than yourself?

When considering these questions, lawyers in private practice will often consider alternatives, such as government service, in-house corporate law departments, public interest organizations, and boutique firms. In this series, we will profile what practicing law looks like from each of these perspectives, to open an aperture on the various environments for persons considering a possible future move.


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