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Can UK law firms survive the storm?

22 February 2013

The article at a glance

The UK’s legal sector is being hit by a ‘near perfect storm’ that may force dramatic changes in recruitment polices with the …

The UK’s legal sector is being hit by a ‘near perfect storm’ that may force dramatic changes in recruitment polices with the ‘averagely good’ replacing the best and brightest law graduates.

That is the view of Tim Bellis, Fellow in Management Practice at Cambridge Judge Business School, who says a number of factors have combined to force law firms to pursue a more nuanced hiring policy in response to dramatic changes that are occurring in the legal services market.

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A lawyer with 35 years’ experience in corporate practice, particularly in the areas of mergers and acquisitions, corporate governance and capital markets transactions, Tim Bellis runs the Cambridge Executive Education’s tailored leadership and management development programmes.

He feels the UK’s legal market is going through the greatest upheaval that its ever experienced.

“There’s a near perfect storm of circumstances that have all come together to provide the most extraordinary challenges. Apart from the current economic downturn and the challenges that that brings, you have the growing sophistication of legal services buyers.

“Major corporates are becoming much more sophisticated about how they want their legal services delivered and at what price.”

In an interview for Cambridge Judge Business School’s website, he highlights the huge increase in the number of lawyers qualifying in the emerging economies, principally China and India. In the latter country over a hundred thousand lawyers qualify each year, which over a two-year period produces more than the total number of lawyers practicing in the UK.

Other contributory elements include the ways in which global communication has eased allowing lawyers to deal with other jurisdictions and, specific to the UK, there is the liberalisation of the market to allow non-lawyers to own legal businesses.

Tim Bellis foresees a future with two tiers of lawyers. Recruitment of the best and the brightest will continue, and they will eventually reach partnership level. Their employers face a training challenge, because if the work these lawyers have historically undertaken is either devolved to colleagues who are not considered fast track or is outsourced, “their roles may change initially to ones more of project management rather than doing the legal analysis themselves. That will provide interesting challenges to law firms – how do you get your best and brightest up to speed if the work that they used to do is being done elsewhere?”

The test around the ‘non-fast track cohort’ will be to replicate the Indian outsourcing model, and issues to be faced will include motivation, driving interest in the work, retaining focus and creating a career structure that does not lead to partnership.