5 Major Trends Impacting Canadian Law Firms Today

1) The Norton Rose Phenomenon

One of today’s key trends affecting law firms of all sizes in Canada is the Norton Rose phenomenon. Norton Rose is a 2,900 lawyer global giant, organized as a Swiss Verein, which has just gobbled up Ogilvy Renault and Macleod Dixon in two quick bites. Within a matter of months, they have singlehandledly changed the face of the Canadian legal industry, creating the third largest legal firm in Canada and they’re just getting started. That’s incredible, and scary for some at the same time. This is the new order in Canada’s legal industry.

This is also a defining moment for the legal industry in Canada, and might drive more mergers and changes in national and regional firms as Norton Rose presses its influence. It could force Canadian national firms to get bigger or they’ll be swallowed up as well. Other global giants such as DLA Piper are waiting in the wings.  At 4,000 plus lawyers it’s the largest law firm in the world.  Discussions are happening amongst multiple potential Canadian merger partners, with other global firms no doubt interested in Canada’s lucrative resources legal work as well.

There are many similarities to what the large accounting firms such as KPMG and Deloitte went through in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as they used Swiss Verein structures to build their global presences as well.  The Swiss Verein structure provides limited liability, world-wide branding and consistent client service standards as some of its features.

Large Canadian law firms are being influenced by the large accounting firms in many ways. In the 90’s, large Canadian law firms went national to protect against the feared onslaught of accounting firms, which fizzled out when Enron happened, but the large national law firms remained. Now there is pressure  again being exerted from the outside, and large firms will have to restructure to fight against this new enemy.  Rumour has it that the large accounting firms are looking to get back into the legal industry again as well.

As an adjunct trend, the rise of the ABS regulations in the UK is putting an even more interesting spin on Norton Rose’s arrival in Canada. ABS allows public ownership of law firms, which is happening right now as UK firms are lining up to go public. If this trend catches on in the UK, even more resources will become available to UK-based firms like Norton Rose, and the US may have to consider the possibility of allowing public ownership for US firms to compete with publicly owned UK firms. This could lead to the ultimate showdown of publicly-owned global law firms, which may lead the legal industry to look something like the big 4 accounting firms when the dust settles, or…? Stay tuned on this one :).

2) Move to Corporate Model

Another trend happening simultaneously is the move to more corporate models of firm governance amongst large Canadian firms. McCarthy’s moved to a board of directors and a full corporate business model a few years ago, and other large and regional Canadian firms are now going the same way. Practice groups are consolidating nationally, similar to what the large accounting firms have done for decades.

3) Alternative Billing

Fee pressures from clients are being experienced by firms of all sizes in Canada. It ranges from the small firms that do commodity work such as residential conveyances for less than what notaries charge in British Columbia, to large firms that are being pressed by large clients to offer alternative billing arrangements such as fixed fees to provide more certainty and less risky billing options.

Alternative billing is not as advanced amongst large firms in Canada as it is in the US and Europe, however, it is coming and firms need to prepare. It is being felt in the banking and intellectual property areas already. It has been prevalent in commodity work in Canada for decades eg. personal services law, residential conveyancing, wills and estates, etc.

Project management is another trend that midsize and large firms are embracing, as a forerunner or as an adjunct to alternative billing. To get as efficient and effective as you can, then use this efficiency to compete in the fixed fee arena, and hopefully maintain or enhance profitability.

The whole concept of value is being embraced by clients, who are looking at the high chargeout rates that law firms have brought in over the last decade, and they now want retribution and rollbacks, or at the least a stop to the increase in their legal budgets. The rise of the ACC Value Challenge is just one indicator of their resolve here.

If the economy worsens in a possible double-dip recession, clients will exert even more pressure on law firms. Firms must prepare for this change and must demonstrate more value to satisfy clients.

There is also a movement to reduce the recovery of soft costs such as photocopies and fax charges, which irritates some clients, and law firms are pulling back on this somewhat.

4) National Firms Cleaning House

National firms are cleaning house and cutting partners with practices below minimum $ practice size and clients that don’t meet minimum $ billings levels. This is a great opportunity for small and regional firms, who are picking up these senior national partners who have been pushed out or who have left national firms for better work/life balance.

This can be a great boon for the smaller firm, as they acquire new talent and institutional clients, who will remain with the smaller firm after the partner finally retires. Many national partners have established long relationships with their clients, and can transition their clients to their new smaller firms and make them profitable with the lower overheads of a small firm.

5) The Rise of Innovative New Legal Business Models

The rise of innovative new business models such as Delegatus, Clearspire, Axiom, Cognition, etc. The concepts of outsourced in-house counsel, no partners, franchised firms and virtual firms are threats to national and regional firms and an opportunity for small firms.

Presented at the Seventh Annual CBA Law Firm Leadership Conference held October 24-25, 2011 in Vancouver, BC

Planning for Success – Key Issues & Goals

Originally posted on Small Firm Innovation

In the first planning installment, we talked about creating a vision and core values statement. The next step is to identify the firm goals and key issues facing the firm.

One suggestion for getting buy-in from the partners is to have them write down the top 3 goals for their practice and for the firm, as well as the things that are stopping them from achieving their personal and firm goals (the key issues).  Submit these for compilation and discussion at a planning retreat.  This will also start the process of aligning personal and firm goals.

At the planning retreat, list all the goals and issues on flipchart paper and post them for all partners to review as the day proceeds.  Then start discussing the issues one by one until you have exhausted all issues.

I’ve found the process is usually more successful if you start by discussing the issues first and the goals after.  Lawyers are naturally focused on what’s wrong with the firm rather than the positives, so I find this approach simplifies and speeds up the discussion considerably as a result.

Once all of the issues have been discussed, then you can start prioritizing the issues.  Aim to have the top 5 issues decided on by the day’s end.  This part of the process can proceed quite quickly if you’ve already had a thorough discussion of the issues beforehand.

Once you have a prioritized list of the top 5 issues facing the firm, you can now start to turn those issues into quantifiable goals.  For example, if one of the issues is “lack of profitability”, then the goal can be converted to “increase profits by x% over x years”.  This is a quantifiable goal with a deadline, which is essential for follow-through and measuring the success of the firm plan later on.

Review the list of goals submitted prior to the retreat, and add or modify to this list based on the discussion of the key issues.  Decide on the top 5 goals as a group.

Once you have decided on the top 5 goals, then you need to determine if completing these goals will be enough to achieve your vision.  If not, you will have to repeat the process until you come up with an adequate set of goals which will achieve your firm vision.

In the first installment we talked about determining where you’re at today and your vision of where you want to be in 5 years.  The difference between these two points is known as the “planning gap.”  The strategic plan will include all of the steps required to get you from where you’re at today to achieving your vision.  The strategic plan will normally cover a 3 to 5 year time frame.

This completes the goal-setting phase.  Now we can start thinking about the strategies and action plans needed to complete the firm plan.  We’ll discuss this phase in the next planning installment.

Planning for Success

Originally posted on Small Firm Innovation

I’ve talked to a number of solo and small firm lawyers over the years about the topic of strategic planning, and often get asked the same question: “Isn’t strategic planning  just a “big firm” thing?”

The answer is that strategic planning is for firms of all sizes.  In fact, it’s even more important for solos and small firms in today’s competitive legal environment.  Solos and small firms can use strategic planning to focus their efforts and “steal” work from big firms by providing better value through lower rates and more flexible billing arrangements, for example.

“Isn’t strategic planning too time-consuming for our partners?”  It doesn’t have to be.  In fact, I will outline a straightforward question and answer process which will easily guide you through the planning steps and produce a strategic plan once you’ve answered all of the planning questions.

“But I’ve already got plenty of billable work which clients need me to do now!”  Yes, you may have lots of work now, but are you doing the kind of work you want to keep you intellectually satisfied, and is it producing the most amount of profit for the least amount of your time?  The strategic planning process will help you resolve these questions.

Where are you going?

You start by creating a vision for your firm and deciding what your practice or firm is going to look like in the long term.  What type of law will you practice, who will your clients be, how big will your firm be, will you have a “bricks and mortar” or “virtual” office?, etc.  You need to envision all of these things and look out 5, 10 or 15 years out for your vision of the firm.

The visioning process doesn’t have to be complicated.  Some large firms spend weeks or months creating a vision, as they have many partners who must come to a consensus on it.  But as a solo or small firm, you only have yourself or a few other partners to come to a decision on your vision, so the time required is much less.

The planning process usually involves taking some time out at a retreat to have partners think about the future of the firm, and is most likely facilitated by a third party.  This third party option usually works best, since all partners have vested interests, and you want someone independent to guide you through the process to ensure you have “buy in” from all partners.

Where are you at now?

Once you’ve figured out where you want to go, you need to confirm where you’re at now. What is your current profitability by practice area, who are your current people, what is your current management structure, what is your partnership entry criteria, etc.  You will need to do a SWOT analysis, which is a review of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to really define what your current position is.

Who are you?

This is the core values step. This involves creating a set of “values” for partner behavior which all partners are required to adhere to.  You need to decide “who’s in the boat” and who isn’t.  You need the right people to help you achieve your firm vision.

What are the steps required to achieve our vision?

Once you know where you’re going, who you are and where you’re at today, you need to figure out the steps needed to achieve your vision. These steps are known as goals, which will help you to determine if you’re making progress towards achieving your vision.  The goals need to be quantified, so you will know when you’ve reached each step along the way.

Next steps

These are the first key steps in the planning process, which will help you kick-start the creation of a new strategic plan for your firm.  In future posts, I will continue this series on strategic planning for solos and small firms.  We’ll fill in the details on how to complete your firm strategic plan and instill an ongoing strategic mindset to maximize your firm’s competitiveness and profitability for the long term.