A deeper look
As the Big Four accounting firms’ expansion into legal services enters a new phase, how big a threat does this pose to traditional law firms?
Ever since the now Big Four accountancy firms first began their push into legal services in the 1990s, legal commentators have tried to frame their entry into the market as a battle over turf. It was portrayed as the traditional law firms up against the accountancy giants and their vast global networks.
But the Big Four’s latest expansion into legal services is different. It comes at a time of considerable upheaval in the legal industry, with the use of alternative legal services providers (ALSPs) growing significantly over the past five years as they combine technology and process efficiencies to handle high-volume, low-value legal work at a much lower cost.
Against that backdrop, the conversation is no longer about whether or not the Big Four are going to muscle out traditional firms on the most prestigious mandates; instead it is about how the Big Four are benefiting from the growth in ALSPs and how they are changing the way legal services are delivered.
“The last time they tried to enter the legal profession in the 1990s, their strategy was we’re just like law firms only bigger. But that’s not their strategy anymore. Their strategy is we provide a different kind of offering, moving from a fee-for-service model to an integrated solutions model,” says David Wilkins, Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.
As Wilkins recalls from a conversation with one Big Four legal head, they are not interested in one-off, bet-the-company matters, they want the run-the-company matters. Consider Bayer’s $66-billion acquisition of Monsanto in 2016. While the parties were advised by top-tier global mergers and acquisitions (M&A) law firms, including Allen & Overy and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, the post-merger work – the integration of all the contracts and all the policies and procedures – was awarded to PwC, he says.
“The Big Four can offer a far higher integration of technology, project management and process management; they employ a huge number of people across a huge range of specialties and they are way more global than even the most global law firm. This is why, for many kinds of issues that companies face, it’s a very attractive offering,” says Wilkins.
Different this time around
Such a project and process management, and scalable IT model, is why the Big Four’s push into legal services could gain more traction this time around. He says: “That model is going to have a lot of purchase in this marketplace.”
Take Deloitte as an example. It employs roughly 330,000 people globally – the largest of the Big Four by headcount – spread across more than 100 offices. This sheer size, coupled with its auditing, consulting, risk, financial and tax advisory businesses, means Deloitte lawyers have a different perspective on their clients, enabling them to provide legal services as part of their broader professional services offering.
“Our strategy is very much rooted in the needs of the client to be offered solutions and not just advice,” says Emily Foges, Lead Partner for Legal Managed Services at Deloitte. “The vision for Deloitte Legal has always been that you bring together high-quality legal advice with legal management consulting, legal managed services and legal technology. This way you can provide a complete end-to-end service to the client and achieve the outcomes they are looking for, not just give them advice on those outcomes.
“This way you can provide a complete end-to-end service and achieve the outcomes the client is looking for”
“That strategy works on its own, but it works so much better in the context of Deloitte because our clients have access to deep business expertise and global scale.”
This scale matters for large global organisations operating in multiple countries as they can access local expertise in a more joined-up, consistent manner than firms that might rely on local partner networks or only have small offices with limited practice-area coverage.
The growth in the ALSP market has come as pressure on in-house legal budgets has forced organisations to revaluate what work can be kept in-house, what needs to be sent to a traditional law firm and what can be outsourced to an alternative provider.
“Most in-house teams have traditionally been used to working in a certain way; you either do the work yourself or you ask your panel firms to support you. Whereas, if you are in any other business function, you’re used to doing it a bit differently; you’re used to outsourcing scale stuff,” says Anup Kollanethu, UK Head of Legal Managed Services at EY. “More in-house teams are now starting to see how their peers within the business are operating and there is almost an acceptance they have to adapt and use a different approach.”
“In-house teams see how their peers within the business are operating and accept they have to use a different approach”
That outsourcing strategy for high-volume work means general counsel could be more inclined to hang on to some of the more complex work in-house that in the past they might have sent to one of their panel firms because they didn’t have time to do it themselves.
“If you talk to most general counsel, they will say if they had the capacity and the expertise they would keep all the really strategic complex work for themselves because that is institutional knowledge. But often they just don’t have the capacity or the expertise because so much of their time is just dealing with the day to day and the demand for doing more with less,” says Kollanethu. “You put those factors in play and you can see why the ALSP market has grown so much.”
The strategy behind the big four's move into legal services
All of that is helping to change in-house attitudes towards alternative providers. Many organisations have now set up separate ALSP panels in addition to their long-standing law firm panels, with the scope of work being instructed also widening.
“Initially, ALSPs were more focused on higher-volume, lower-complexity activities a company might outsource, such as manual, volume-based document review in support of M&A or litigation work. But now the types of services that are offered have moved much higher up the complexity curve,” says Juan Crosby, Partner and NewLaw Leader at PwC.
“We have core offerings focused on this. One integrates technical legal subject matter experts into our wider managed services offering and the second is helping client legal functions transform and manage their budgets in a much more effective way, helping the general counsel office start to reimagine their operating model for legal.”
A fairly significant portion of that change is rooted in the adoption of technology, something Crosby says is a key differentiator for PwC.
“If you look at the biggest transformation that is happening in law and you look at the way in-house legal functions are revising their operating model, a key component of the change is around leveraging scalable technology,” he says.
Because PwC helps organisations implement technology across a wide range of business functions, the firm is able to integrate structured data from all those previously siloed systems to give organisations greater insights into their legal data, says Crosby.
That is not only giving accountancy firms such as PwC a competitive advantage, it is also reshaping the legaltech landscape by pushing the boundaries of what technology can do.
“The Big Four put a lot of investment around researching how they can take existing technologies that don’t even relate to the practice of law, but can provide a client solution,” says Bea Seravello, Co-head of Baretz+Brunelle’s NewLaw Practice. “Law firms are not there right now, they are still struggling with just embracing technology to use in practice.”
But it’s not just about technology. For Deloitte, that competitive advantage also comes from its people – many of its recent hires have come from in-house roles – combined with its global reach and commercial model.
“I don’t want to ever be offering managed services under a billable-hour model because we need to be incentivised to do the work as efficiently as possible and that means making the best use of technology,” says Foges.
There are competing views over how much impact the Big Four are likely to have on the wider legal industry. Nick Smith, Acquisitions Director at Gateley, says law firms should not be overly concerned about the presence of the accountancy firms, given that some large organisations might feel uncomfortable about single-sourcing professional services if they are using those firms for audit purposes as well.
The expansion of the Big Four is also likely to impact some law firms more than others. Brad Blickstein, Seravello’s Co-head at Baretz+Brunelle, thinks mid-size law firms in general might not feel the competitive pinch quite as much as larger firms, partly because of the type of work they provide.
“If you’re doing business with a mid-size firm, there is a reason you are; it’s either because you like their cost profile better or the right attorney is there,” he says. “The big law firms look like each other, but the mid-sized firms have already staked out some competitive differentiating ground.”
Typically, the type of work that is more ripe for disruption, due diligence for an M&A deal, say, is not the type of work mid-sized firms do, says Blickstein.
“The other reason is that the biggest single advantage the Big Four have is they have the ear of the C-suite at the big companies and those big companies tend to be working with big firms,” he adds.
That’s not to say mid-sized firms are completely immune to the Big Four’s growth plans. “They could be looking at a swath of practices that are in the mid-sized playground and they could just focus on scooping that right up and taking it away from them,” says Seravello. “That is a possibility because they are much more of a machine; they’ll go wherever the greatest opportunity is for them.”
“They are much more of a machine; they’ll go wherever the greatest opportunity is for them.”
One area that may be safe for now is business-to-consumer work. Wilkins at Harvard Law School says he has not seen any evidence of the Big Four moving into this line of work, while Foges says Deloitte has no plans to pursue this from a global perspective. But Wilkins has seen companies outside of the legal industry, such as investment advisers, bundling legal services with other products as a “perk" to drive business, so it could be something to watch in the future.
Some law firms may also be too relaxed about the Big Four’s growing foothold in the market, potentially finding themselves outgunned by the elite firms at the top and squeezed out lower down because they can’t compete with the Big Four on price.
“This is a classic disruptive innovation story in which the top players increasingly move to the higher and higher-value work, which is great except there’s only room for a certain number of players there,” says Wilkins. “The question is how many? It’s like playing the childhood game of musical chairs: every once in a while, the music stops and somebody has taken away a chair.”
But there are caveats to the Big Four’s legal services expansion. For starters, not all the Big Four are competing for certain types of traditional legal work. For instance, only PwC and Deloitte list litigation among their practice areas.
“Litigation provides too many complexities, too many regulatory problems and too many conflicts,” says Wilkins.
Law is also not the main priority for the Big Four in the context of their wider businesses. Dr Laura Empson, Professor in Management of Professional Service Firms at London’s Cass Business School and author of Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas, says while legal services are a growth area for the Big Four, it remains dwarfed by the rest of their business. Take PwC, for example, while it employs 3,700 legal professionals globally, they account for roughly only 1% of its total workforce.
“Their legal businesses are tiny in relation to the core elements of their business and this will have implications for the amount of senior management attention and the resources they get,” she says.
Secondly, the Big Four are facing significant regulatory challenges around their core business to safeguard against further audit scandals. If their audit business is ring fenced, then the ability to cross-sell services to their legal business will be constrained.
This is part of the reason why the Big Four are seeking to grow their legal services operations, either organically or through acquisitions. Deloitte Legal, for instance, last year purchased tech-focused law firm Kemp Little. EY has also made two high-profile acquisitions in recent years, including UK ALSP Riverview Law and Thomson Reuter’s managed services business Pangea3.
Those working in the legal divisions of the Big Four expect the market to continue shifting in their direction over the next decade as trends around outsourcing and technology further accelerate.
“Legal is not a core competency for most large corporations, so outsourcing everyday legal work to specialists will be much more the norm,” says Deloitte’s Foges.
“Legal is not a core competency for most large corporations, so outsourcing everyday legal work to specialists will be much more the norm”
So too will be using technology, she says. Automating routine low-value, high-volume tasks through artificial intelligence and machine learning means lawyers can spend more time focusing on higher-value work instead.
That means the legal services market could become even more competitive in the future than it is now.
“Change tends to happen very slowly and then very fast,” says Wilkins. “That tipping point doesn’t mean there won’t be traditional law firms that attract very high-level talent, but they are going to compete in a marketplace in which there are many other players. For some things you’re going to want a traditional law firm, but for other things, and probably a fairly large number of other things, you’re going to want something different and that might be a Big Four solution.”
A tale of two strategies
Big Four strategy in the 90s versus today
|Business model||Recruit top lawyers and look as much like a traditional law firm as possible||Integrating law into wider global professional services offering|
|Delivery model||Matter-by-matter, fee-for-service work||Combining process efficiencies and technology to provide everyday legal services at scale|
|Target market||Prestigious clients, high-profile deals||Helping global corporates run their businesses|
|Key message||“Just like law firms only bigger”||“Clients require solutions, not just advice”|
Not standing still
Law firms are rising to the challenge of the Big Four’s continued move into legal services, with some adopting new business models
Law firms have never been well known for embracing change, but the rise of alternative legal services providers (ALSPs) and the growing presence of the Big Four is spurring leaders to take action.
“Both ALSPs and the accountants are bringing some disruption into the market and forcing traditional law firms to think a bit differently, and for those firms on the front foot that will be for their good,” says Craig Chaplin, Partner at DWF and Commercial Director of its Mindcrest Division.
DWF completed its acquisition of managed services business Mindcrest last year to complement its legal advisory practice with the ability to handle lower-value, but high-volume, work.
“It was a way of looking at the world and saying there must be a way of using people, process and technology in an intelligent way to deliver the right outcomes for clients, but so that it doesn’t cost them the earth,” says Chaplin. “That way we could get a much larger share of the wallet because we didn’t have to leave the volume stuff on the table.”
While the rise of ALSPs has motivated some firms to rethink how they provide services, David Carter, Chief Product Officer at Norton Rose Fulbright, thinks this is just a surface-level analysis. The trends that have created opportunities for ALSPs to thrive – new technology, growth of in-house legal teams and deregulation – are just as relevant for traditional law firms, he says.
“Our response to the Big Four and ALSPs has been driven more by our simultaneous reaction to the trends enabling their development than by a defensive response,” says Carter. “Indeed, we have expanded our capabilities in recent years into areas pioneered by the Big Four or ALSPs, such as legal operations consulting and risk consulting, so the movement is both ways.”
“We have expanded our capabilities into legal operations consulting and risk consulting, so the movement is both ways”
Revamping business models
While firms are increasingly recognising that standing still is not an option, the traditional partner model can sometimes act as a handbrake on meaningful change.
“Ultimately the thing that really restricts law firms is their structure, which prevents them from behaving differently,” says Bea Seravello, Co-head of Baretz+Brunelle’s NewLaw Practice.
Some firms have taken advantage of regulatory changes introduced in 2007 that allow non-lawyers to own and manage law firms. A number of firms in the UK now operate under the alternative business structures (ABS) model, including Gateley, which listed on the London Stock Exchange AIM market in 2015. This has enabled it to move away from the traditional partnership model while also expanding into other professional services areas, such as real estate, human capital, and corporate and business services.
The impact of ALSPs on the legal market
“The core of our strategy when we listed on AIM was to take advantage of the flexibility created by deregulation and the way we can offer services to our clients,” says Nick Smith, Acquisitions Director at Gateley. “This strategy is about diversifying our revenue streams to become even more relevant and valued by our clients, and offering lawyers a structure that gives an alternative career opportunity to the traditional partnership model.”
Such flexibility allows ABS firms to raise capital from outside investors to pursue, for instance, acquisition opportunities or investment in new business lines in a way that would be more challenging for the traditional law firm model where partners would have to give up potential profits from their own pockets to fund any spending sprees.
Chaplin says DWF’s decision to move to the ABS model was driven in part by clients questioning whether they were getting the best value for money from their law firms because of the way those firms were structured, particularly how partners were remunerated.
“We realised we could move to a structure that enabled us to provide enhanced legal and business services without much internal disruption. It wasn’t a massive pivot for us and it’s really helped us be more competitive because we can attract a different type of talent,” he says.
“We could move to a structure that enabled us to provide enhanced legal and business services without much internal disruption.”
Given the potential funding flexibility that converting to an ABS model can provide, the big question is why haven’t more firms done so?
“Frankly, more law firms don’t adopt this model because the power of inertia in most is second to none,” says Chaplin. “Some private practice law firms are resistant to change and the people who would like to see things done in a different way are quite often not the people in charge. The incentive structure for law firms isn’t necessarily designed to prompt change because senior partners close to retirement are not incentivised to invest and gamble the profits of their remaining few years by betting large on a new innovative technology.”
While different firms would have different voting mechanisms, typically firms would need at least a majority vote and, in some cases, much higher, including unanimity. The higher the bar is set, the more difficult it would be for traditional firms to convert, he says.
According to Smith, it’s not about whether the partnership model is wrong and the ABS model is right, it’s about what is right for a firm’s individual business. Yet he doesn’t think regulations are too restrictive for firms still operating under a partnership model to compete with ALSPs and the Big Four.
“We’ve never said the partnership model is defunct. We fully believe, in the next years and decades, there will be examples of very successful law firm operations that are still run as partnerships,” he says.
Given the importance of technology to the Big Four’s delivery model, surely law firms should be ramping up their tech investments to fend off this challenge. To a point, firms say, but it’s not a magic bullet.
Carter, for instance, doesn’t believe new technology will necessarily favour the Big Four or ALSPs; it will simply favour those law firms that do embrace it over those that don’t. Also, while the Big Four’s model is built around using technology at scale to drive efficiencies, Smith doesn’t see their tech focus as a threat to firms of his size.
“From a technology standpoint, certainly in the mid-market, there is a heavy emphasis on service and a lot of what clients value is difficult to replicate with technology,” he says. “But efficiency is key so as an operator the question you have to ask yourself is to what extent can I preserve the value my client sees our operations providing to them, but at the same time doing it in an increasingly efficient manner? That’s where technology can help.”
For Chaplin, technology will increasingly allow large in-house legal teams to become more self-sufficient, but it won’t automatically enable law firms to become more competitive.
“You can spend a lot of money trying to keep on top of technology and buying the right solution, but it won’t necessarily get you to where you want to be,” he says.
One way law firms could potentially differentiate with tech is by staking out an expert niche and then building a solution around it. DWF, for example, has invested in what Chaplin calls the “Ferrari” of ediscovery software, something that would be too expensive for many small and medium-sized firms to do themselves.
“As an alternative provider, we can help those firms become more competitive because they can retain a bigger share of the litigation fighting purse,” he adds.
Chaplin expects that in the future, as more corporate legal teams seek managed service solutions on top of traditional legal advice, there will be increased collaboration between law firms and ALSPs, akin to DWF’s acquisition of Mindcrest.
Yet there is no real alarm among law firms over the Big Four’s expansion into legal services. “There have always been trends and changes that are relevant to how we operate and there always will be,” says Smith. “There will always be a role for the very best in what you do. So my view is it’s not a takeover of legal services, it’s a change in the legal services market, and over time there will be a greater delineation of which type of customer wants to buy their services from which type of provider.”
Four firms, four strategies
corporate law, digital law, dispute resolution, M&A, regulatory and compliance, private clients’ legal services, real estate, banking and finance, commercial law, legal management consulting, legal managed services
Number of lawyers:
Luis Fernando Guerra
corporate and commercial law, transaction law, labour and employment law, digital law, financial services law, legal operations, legal managed services, entity compliance and governance, legal function consulting
Number of lawyers:
Cornelius Grossmann and Jeff Banta, Co-leaders of EY Global Law
competition law and antitrust, employment law, international business reorganisations, entity governance and compliance, immigration law, M&A, real estate law, financial services, commercial litigation, cybersecurity and data protection, energy law, information technology, intellectual property, private client, public law, tax controversy and dispute resolution, white-collar and corporate crime, NewLaw
Number of lawyers:
3,700 legal professionals
Tony O’Malley, Global Legal Services Leader
financial services, equity capital markets and debt advisory, Investigations and compliance, M&A and corporate law, business reorganisations, commercial law and contracts, global entity management, data, digital and technology, NewLaw/legal technology, employment and immigration
Number of lawyers:
Stuart Fuller, Global Head of Legal Services
The human factor
Often voted great places to work, what is it like to be a lawyer at a Big Four firm?
If you flick through the myriad best employers lists published in newspapers and magazines, the Big Four accountancy firms are usually somewhere near the top. Fortune, for instance, currently ranks EY, KPMG, PwC and Deloitte all inside its top 50 places to work, while just two law firms, Perkins Coie and Orrick, rank inside the top 50. In another poll published by Working Mothers magazine, Deloitte, EY and PwC were all ranked inside the top 10 of family-friendly companies.
Benefits at the Big Four
David Wilkins, Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, says the Big Four are concentrating huge resources in this area. They have large human resources departments, extensive training and development programmes, and more advanced agile working arrangements. Yet those benefits come at a cost if you are a lawyer who wants to be running the whole show, he says.
“You are expected to be part of an integrated solution, so if you’re talking about a huge project involving IT, strategy, finance and law, chances are the people running that project are not going to be lawyers,” says Wilkins.
“The Big Four used to want to recruit top partners from law firms to run their legal businesses, but now if you look across all four, they’re all being run by people who came up through the ranks, many of whom have worked in other areas and who were brought into law because they understand the value proposition the Big Four are giving to clients.”
The differences between being a lawyer at the big four vs a law firm
Brad Blickstein, Co-head of Baretz+Brunelle’s NewLaw Practice, thinks the focus on process and technology might not appeal to all.
“Law school teaches you to look for the differences in matters, so it’s quite hard to then come out of that thinking and forget all about the differences and instead focus on the 95% of everything that’s the same,” he says. “Those who have had that mind-shift are going to fit nicely into a Big Four, but if you take the everything-is-different approach, then a law firm is going to be more appropriate for you.”
Salaries are also likely to be an influencing factor. While take-home pay for newly qualified lawyers at the Big Four is pretty attractive, top talent can still earn more at traditional firms. PwC, for instance, offers newly qualified lawyers £72,000 a year, according to Legal Cheek. That puts it roughly on a par with firms such as Mischon de Reya, Pinsent Masons and CMS, but about £10,000 less than you could earn at Magic Circle firm Linklaters and roughly half of what you could earn at an elite US firm such as Kirkland & Ellis or Latham & Watkins.
“You are expected to be part of an integrated solution, so chances are the people running that project are not going to be lawyers.”
So why would a lawyer swap a career at a traditional firm to work at one of the Big Four?
“The candidates we talk to are really fired up by the innovation agenda, basically reimagining the future of law and being part of that story; that for them is very exciting,” says Emily Foges, Lead Partner for Legal Managed Services at Deloitte. “They are also excited about working closely with different expertise in the firm, so being on a team with people who have huge amounts of experience in other disciplines rather than just being on a team of lawyers.”
Likewise, for Juan Crosby, Partner and NewLaw Leader at PwC, the appeal of pursuing a career at his firm is not only the chance to work for one of the top global professional services firms, it is also the opportunity to work alongside a variety of experts with different skillsets and approaches to those of a traditional law firm.
“There’s still a requirement for exceptional legal skills; we have invested very heavily in subject-area expertise and that’s what we as lawyers bring to PwC. But they are enabled by a model that can deliver for clients much more efficiently,” he says.
of employees at law firms are engaged
There is also a strong emphasis on personal development and growing digital IQ. Crosby says: “There are very structured programmes that enable all employees to go through different types of training that can improve their skills for working in a digital age.
“We have exceptional technical lawyers in the areas they focus on, but now they’re visualising and demonstrating some of the legal concepts they think about day to day using tools they wouldn’t have been able to do before. So there’s the ability to amplify the effect of, or message in, their work through different types of mediums, which can be far more impactful in helping clients understand legal issues.”
Experience gained at a Big Four firm could also prove valuable later, says Dr Laura Empson, Professor in Management of Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School.
“If you spend a few years in a Big Four firm, learn how firms of this complexity operate, take from it what’s useful, and then move somewhere else and become a big fish in that pond, because you’re someone who’s just come from one of the Big Four, it’s not a bad career move,” she concludes.