Is the Future Small?—Why are small law firms so attractive?

Our latest Bellwether Report 2019: Is the Future Small? considers whether the future of legal practice is in small firms. In a climate that is all about competition, where we are all feeling the stress of the workplace, we ask whether small firms, with their efficient working processes and better holistic practices may be the way forward for the ever-changing legal market.

So what’s so attractive about small firms?

Currently small firms are dominating the UK legal markets with 95% of firms falling into the bracket of earning under £500k and 50% earning less than £150k. Interesting almost two-thirds of those we spoke to had previously worked in medium or large firms before moving to a smaller firm—showing that there’s clearly a large interest in setting up a smaller, more niche practice or working for a smaller law firm. As well as this 44% said would consider working for a small or solo outfit in their next role. But why are these small firms so attractive?

What are the advantages to small firms?

There are many advantages of working at a small firm, such as improved workplace efficiency and better quality of life. From our survey we identified the top advantages as:

  1. Ability to remain in control
  2. Swifter decision making
  3. Better client experience
  4. Flexible working
  5. Competitive rates

The benefits we identified also go beyond the practicalities of delivering legal services—wellbeing is seen as a major plus, with smaller firms being considered to be better at fostering a culture of more holistic employee wellbeing.

One of the other major benefits is better client servicing. Over the last few years client servicing has become a huge part of how law firms operate and some are still not getting this right. With smaller law firms the client experience is better as you can have the same person handle an issue from start to finish, leading to a better client relationship therefore leading to more work.

What are the challenges?

Of course, with benefits there also comes challenges. One of the main concerns expressed by solicitors was the pressure of having only a few solicitors working on each case, leading to high workloads and levels of responsibility. This was reflected in the fact that more than three quarters found it hard to take time off—undermining the work/life balance benefits that small firms provide.

Another key issue connected with the lack of staff due to the size of a small business, is the feeling that the lack of capacity could force them to turn away good work—with 3 in 4 also believing that their firms size could represent a lack of responsibility to clients.

Though size does matter, it doesn’t always mean bigger is better! Solicitors believe that the benefits of working for a small firm really do outweigh the challenges.

Does growth actually equal success?

From our survey we found that 91% of small firms are feeling positive about the future and 76% are planning to grow over the next five years. Although there is an optimistic view around growth, 91% believe that growing the business model is actually a problem—as how can you grow when your model relies on clients buying into individual solicitors, rather than the brand overall.

However, in light of the above, when asked about whether solicitors felt their firms were optimally sized for success, 51% of respondents stressed that they were. This is a growth of 10% since 2016, suggesting solicitors have become ‘increasingly confident that bigger is not necessarily better’.

Being small comes with huge advantages

Overall the findings would suggest that being small is favourable to many. With the ability to shape and develop a working law firm to suit the law you practice and the life you lead, being small comes with many advantages. However, while the advantages do for many outweigh the challenges, there are still issues with the small law business model—noticeably surrounding the ability to grow the business. Despite this, solicitors still appear optimistic about their futures, with high levels of job satisfaction and confidence around firm performance. So if the future is indeed small, the future seems bright.

Read the Bellwether Report 2019: Is the Future Small? here.

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