A Sunday post by Adam Smith, Esq. post provides good perspective on the theme of “law factory” versus bet the farm firms. 

Who’s Signing Your Paycheck? opens with an anonymous letter from a BigLaw partner to Adam Smith, Esq. asking

    “why law firms seem to be supporting the building of a “star” culture, rather than going the brand approach like the management consulting firms and the accounting firms.”

The answer is that building brands is hard:

    “A brand promises a certain consistent experience, an expectation of a particular quality level, experience of service, consistency, sameness (in the best sense), an implicit guarantee. But law firm partners are anything but designed or acculturated to delivering a ‘consistent experience’ or ‘a particular quality level.’ It seems at odds with our very essence.”

Until reading this, I had thought about the idea of law factory as applying only to types of matters or tasks on matters. Bet-the-farm firms focus on high value, unusual matters and on tasks that could not easily be routinized; law factories handle the rest. The post makes me realize that even elements of how bet-the-farm firms deliver service require consistency.

Brand consistency is simply a “service level agreement (SLA)”, though typically implicit rather than explicit. The idea of SLAs in law firms is slowly emerging but typically for staff support functions, not what lawyers do. Firms could develop an SLA that defines what clients can expect from their lawyers. Achieving a specified SLA requires consistency, which suggests that even a bet-the-farm firm needs factory-like elements to develop a meaningful brand.

Extending this thinking, we can question the whole theory of BigLaw. The absence of BigLaw brands supports the commonly heard assertion that clients don’t hire firms, they hire lawyers. If brand does not matter or is so hard to build given lawyer attitudes, then what role does the BigLaw platform really serve?

Before answering, consider Rees Morrison’s post, also on Sunday. In Alternative Firm Arrangements surpass Alternative Fee Arrangements for cost control he suggests that “law departments need to change firms, not fees, to really move the needle” on costs.

Also consider Mark Hermann’s post today, Inside Straight: How De-Equitizing Partners Can Undermine A Business Model at Above the Law. He writes

    “If you’re at risk of being de-equitized, then it’s time to hedge against the risk. That means looking out for yourself, even if your self-interest doesn’t align perfectly with the institution’s best interest. When you read in the Journal about a new case, or a client contacts you about a potential big piece of business, it’s time to grab the opportunity and run. You may or may not land the business, but at least you’ve given yourself a chance. No more reporting up through the ranks, giving away the opportunity, and then being at risk that the firm will decide you’re superfluous.”

Perhaps the future will see the rock star lawyers – strong individual brands – working in small boutiques. If Morrison is right, then clients will increasingly choose such firms. If Hermann is right, there is not much glue to hold together BigLaw anway and rain-makers / super-stars will jump at the first opportunity.

So “bet the farm” lawyers might supplant bet-the-farm firms. Individuals who are the super brand rainmakers could sub-contract work to whatever ‘platform’ is most suitable for a given matter, be it a BigLaw firm, regional firm, or alternative service provider such as an LPO. All these other providers will have to run with factory efficiency and SLAs to survive.

I am not willing to put odds on this scenario but it’s intriguing. If true, those who are not superstars or already working for highly efficient organizations may need to worry.