The Chinese have an old saying, “One cannot stand still in a moving river”. And not only is change a fact of life for us all, it is also the case that the pace of change seems to quicken year on year.

The question I want to pose is whether the way in-house lawyers are using law firms is changing too – and what does this say about what is happening in law firms?

Sometimes we do not always see the changes that occur ourselves because being involved and up close to something is not the best perspective to have. Sometimes we need to take a step back and look at the big picture as it has developed over the last few years – Then we can see how fundamental some of the changes have been.

This does not just apply to the law.

Take high street shopping for example; once there were old certainties – Pants from M&S, shirts from C&A, trousers from Foster’s Menswear, something more trendy from John Collier (John Collier, John Collier the window to watch!).

So, what about some of the old certainties around law firms?

Ten years ago there were distinct categories of firm and you knew what to expect when you went to any of them for help.

  • The Magic Circle. We may not have always liked them and they Didn’t care, but the Chairman knew a corporate partner. It was a safe if expensive pair of hands (many, many pairs of hands) and deals got done at 2am.
  • London firms. Always good people and cheaper than the magic circle, but with an identity crisis. Most of the partners would be found apologising for not being a magic circle firm; while most of the associates were jolly thankful they were not.
  • National firms. These were (still are in a way) the upstarts; aggressive, chippy and trying to nibble at the heels of the bigger boys while offering a full service at half the cost of the magic circle. Now though with pretensions of grandeur, networked across the globe, a fee earner in every port.
  • Niche practices. Places for clever people who did not like their colleagues in bigger firms. A bespoke service, not cheap but personal.

There is still a ring of truth in this analysis that makes it recognisable today. So, perhaps it is not like shopping on the high street where in less than ten years there has been a fundamental shift in the way we shop and the reputations of the outlets as well.

M&S still sell pants but are seen by many to be “pants”; C&A has gone, no-one has ever heard of John Collier and Fosters Menswear is still around, but no one admits to shopping there.

What of law firms therefore? Do the old certainties really hold true? Or has there been a similar shift in perceptions and buying trends here as well?

Well to a point the old order remains, although many a good name has gone, while others have faded fast. However the boundaries have definitely blurred and, like the high street, it is changing all the time.

Here are some new law firm models to watch out for:

  • The “New Look” firm. This is the law firm selling on price, on a sort of disposable advice. Mostly manufactured overseas, shipped in quickly to meet demand, setting trends and leading the style. Commoditised but slickly delivered.
  • The “WH Smith” firm. A firm with an old name and trying to be all things to all people. Everyone has heard of them, but no-one buys anything. Probably on your shortlist for work but they never quite beat the best of the rest and therefore always lose out in the end.
  • The “Phones 4U” firm. A brand new name that did not exist just a few years back. Bright and shiny, no legacy issues. Loads of customer facing technology promising the earth, but if all you want is a mobile phone on which to make telephone calls to other people, you may be made to feel a little inadequate.
  • The “Waitrose” firm. Still one of the best firms with quality everywhere but at a price to match? Don’t go here for potatoes, unbundle your shopping list and use them with discretion. There is value on the shelves but only when you want something special.
  • The “Boots” firm. What are they now exactly? Another law firm with an identity crisis. The brochures proclaim “We can do everything” but only some of it well. The extras, like loyalty points, may help you swallow some less than fantastic service, but in the end was it worth it?
  • The “Starbucks” firm. Dip in, dip out – short and sweet, consistent quality, a bit pricey for what it is but very easy to use and a taste for most palates.
  • The “E-Bay” firm. Building a brand around a new delivery channel. Price is the key but must build a reputation for reliability too. Once established, a significant threat to every traditional model. Demands a serious strategic rethink in every management committee in every law firm of every type. Ignore this one at your peril.

What does it mean?

It means that you have to shop around. It means you should not rely on old habits to find out the right service or the right price.

You must now be prepared to at least walk into Phones 4U, but be prepared to walk out again too!

Unbundle your thinking, define your needs, price your expectation of quality and service and look around for those firms that can offer you something you might not have thought possible before.