A recent report from LexisNexis uncovers the rise of platform law firms. Predictions suggest that as many as 3000 of the UK’s 10000 law firms could close or merge in the next five years alone and consequently many lawyers may be absorbed by platform law firms.
The question for lawyers, then, is whether platform law firms provide an attractive alternative to traditional firms. In this article, we explore the benefits and drawbacks of platform law firms, giving lawyers key information that may well inform career decisions in the future.
Tony Williams, founder of Jomati Consultants, says that legal consultants at platform law firms often adopt a ‘hunter-gatherer’ mentality. For people who enjoy autonomy, who thrive under the hunter-gatherer mentality, platform law firms might prove beneficial.
More autonomy means less admin, less politics, less bureaucracy. It might also mean better legal technology and legal software. In the LexisNexis report, Employment Lawyer Karen Coleman praised the platform law model: ‘You get all the benefits of being in a firm in terms of resources, but you don’t get all the negatives in terms of targets and politics.’
More autonomy is particularly attractive to lawyers who have paused careers either because they had children or needed to provide family care. It offers an alternative to the often-rigid structures of traditional firms, while improving the diversity of the legal sector.
The lack of bureaucracy also means that legal consultants spend more time with clients. There are often complaints across the legal sector about too many meetings, too much admin, too much time spent on billing, and so on. The platform law firm promises to get rid of all that, keeping only the essentials and freeing up time for client-facing work.
Corporate lawyer Nick Ducker swapped equity partnership at Manchester-based firm Shammah Nicholls in favour of going self-employed at gunnercooke. He says that too much admin and too much management was one of the key drivers for that career change.
‘The whole [platform law] model made perfect sense to me, the flexibility around the way you work but more importantly around the way that you interact with your clients,’ Ducker says. ‘The profession has a certain reputation of billing every minute of every day but being in gunnercooke on a fixed-fee basis allowed me to just engage better with my clients.’
The LexisNexis report shows an ‘Eat what you kill’ or ‘Hunter-gatherer’ mentality at many platform law firms. And compensation generally reflects that mentality. That means lawyers who are adept at finding and working effectively wit clients will likely yield greater rewards.
Large firms seem to offer relatively consistent forms of compensation, all depending on the work performed. Keystone allows legal consultants to keep up to 75%. Taylor Rose allows them to retain 70%, but the exact fee varies slightly. Similar rates are offered at gunnercooke, starting at 70% but rising to 90% depending on meeting certain revenue thresholds.
The question for lawyers, then, is whether they can bring in enough clients to make platform law firms work for them. There are barriers to gaining clients at platform law firms which can negatively affect your autonomy, client time, and salary, as we explore below.
Legal consultants will not be given work. Salary is not confirmed or promised. You may not have the same reputable brand behind you, nor the same marketing tactics at your disposal. If platform law is ‘Eat what you kill’, legal consultants will need to (proverbially) kill.
‘It’s a little bit like leaving school and going to university,’ says Ducker about the switch to platform law. ‘You can go to university and have a great time, but if you don’t get out of bed in the morning and go to lectures, you’re not going to pass your exams. So you need self-discipline but you also need to be driven and a bit entrepreneurial.’
Legal consultants need to find their own clients, which can present huge problems. Finding clients that want to work with you may be uncomfortable at best, impossible at worse.
‘I’m a general counsel, I don’t worry about where my work is coming from, I don’t have to chase my clients,’ said James Harper, senior general counsel at LexisNexis. ‘Even If you’re coming from in-house, while you’ve probably got contacts, you’re very out of practice to go and ask those contacts for money – that feels very uncomfortable.’
So while platform law firms provide the benefit of more client-facing work, that comes with the huge drawback that legal consultants need to find their own clients. Trying to get more client-facing work might just have the complete opposite effect.
Salaries are dependent on the work you do. Less clients leads to less money. That can cause problems. Lawyers hoping to transition to legal consultants should consider building a financial cushion. That will provide a safety net, which is particularly important during the early stages of the shift to platform law. As Harper explains: ‘You are setting up your own business and if you don’t have the capital sitting behind you to cover yourself when you’re not going to be earning much…that’s a barrier and it’s also quite scary.’
For more insights and interviews about the pros and cons of working as a legal consultant, read our new report here.
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