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Up to now, most ABS activity in the UK has focused on consumer law. But if a trend of the last couple of years accelerates, corporate and commercial firms may find their comparative immunity from ABS competitors coming to a bloody end. The accountants are back. In fact, despite past reverses and the Arthur Andersen debacle, they have never really been away.
As a survey by The Economist, entitled, The Attack of the Bean Counters, has noted, the inequality of arms between the Big Four and Big Law is striking. Combined, the worldwide billings of PWC, Ernst & Young, Deloitte and KPMG are $120 billion, dwarfing the $89 billion of the world’s top 100 law firms. By headcount, PWC is the world’s 10th biggest legal practice, and plans to boost legal services revenue to $1 billion by 2020.
Concerns about conflicts of interest have been at the heart of opposition to ABS, and indeed conflicts between Andersen’s consulting and audit arms were widely seen as key to its collapse. For a time afterwards, accountants lost interest in legal services and sold off their non-tax operations, but three factors drew them back. First was the recession, which sharply reduced their traditional fee income. Second, the globalisation of corporate clients made international reach a potent selling point: EY Legal has expanded from 23 countries to 64 since 2013. Already, the Big Four’s combined share of revenue of the top 10 law firms in each jurisdiction where they operate ranges from 4% in China and 6% in the UK, to
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