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We don't often look across the pond for advice on making 'Merica's legal industry great. We took the Magna Carta, some common law, and haven't felt the need to look back since 1776. But maybe there's a thing or two American lawyers can learn from their English counterparts, at least when it comes to the structure of the "law firm of the future."
A recent debate among English practitioners about the future of the firm has plenty of good insights for American lawyers. Perhaps the most helpful reminder: when it comes to clients, no one cares about law firm structure. What they want is results.
Are Such Things Done on Albion's Shore?
The debate comes to us from The Lawyer, a British legal magazine. On one side, there's Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq repeating a sentiment American lawyers are familiar with: the traditional law firm has no future. Future-focused firms must abandon the partnership model, MacEwen argues, eliminating "the misleading and mischief-making fiction that each partner is an 'owner.'" Where a partnership puts the lawyers first, a corporate model would emphasize the interest of the firm as a whole and reduce "extreme short-termism." Not convinced? Then think: how many successful corporations would actually choose to switch to a partnership form?
Of course, the traditional firm has its defenders. For example, Mark Brandon, a legal strategy consultant, has responded with an impassioned defense. Partnerships might be difficult to manage, Brandon writes, but they spread the wealth more effectively than corporate models and they are less likely to succumb to the misguided whims of a single executive. Plus, "if you've ever bought energy, telecoms, or cable TV, you'll know that being a corporate doesn't guarantee good customer service." Indeed.
But Wait: It Doesn't Matter!
Thankfully, we have Tim Bratton to keep us from getting too involved in the back and forth. As a lawyer, former GC of the Financial Times, and director at an alternative legal services company, Bratton has a wide view of the (English) legal industry. His insight? The debate over law firm structure is a red herring. Sure, Google's corporate structure has served it well. But plenty of legal partnerships, from BigLaw to boutiques, have succeeded under the traditional model.
And frankly, clients couldn't care less. When a GC is hiring outside counsel, they don't typically worry about the partnership structure. Neither do any other clients. Businesses, from start ups to white shoe firms, don't succeed because of their structure, but because they know what their clients want and can deliver solutions successfully and efficiently.