How Law Firms Can Survive a Tough Economic Legal Market |

How Law Firms Can Survive a Tough Economic Legal Market


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How can you know if your firm is at serious risk? And, what can you do to avoid trouble on the horizon? The following are some important short- to mid-term warning signs:
How Law Firms Can Survive a Tough Economic Legal Market
  1. Serious profitability declines

    Obviously, a significant decline in profitability is an indication that something may be amiss. Yet, how a firm should react depends in large measure on what the underlying causes are and the firm's forecast for a rapid change in fortune. First, and obviously, firms should assure that their costs are kept under tight control and prudent management. This does not mean paring expenses to minimal levels, but rather that the firm ensures its expenses are properly aligned with its business base and its strategy.

    In addition, unless the profitability decline is viewed as short term, the firm should be focused on matching its capacity with reasonable expectations concerning the available business. This may require reductions in lawyers in practice areas subject to significant downturns, while still maintaining the critical base of core competencies necessary to compete in a turnaround.
  2. Significant hours shift from associates to partners

    This is a subtle sign that partners may be hoarding work in order to appear busy, often an indication that the business base is eroding. However, the erosion may not show up in short- term production numbers, as partner billing rates are generally somewhat higher than associates. Later, this may translate into somewhat increased write-offs or client fee problems.

    Although both partners and associates should work hard, associates should generally bill more hours than partners. Partners have responsibilities for other important things like client development and management. Assuming your firm normally follows this pattern, a significant reversal may be a sign that the business is drying up or that a fundamental change in the nature of the work is occurring. Managers should track this pattern on an annual basis, but should also review monthly data and three-month trends and focus on problems early in their development. The risk is that the volume of work declines, partners begin to hoard the available work, focusing more on billing than on marketing. The result will be continued erosion of the firm's business base.
  3. Emergence of a 9—5 mentality

    It is impossible for a law firm to be successful when many of the partners are “9-5'ers.” It is difficult if many of the other employees have this mentality. Successful careers in the profession require a significant time commitment, especially when billable workloads are down. Partners must focus on marketing and other critical investments of time. There is always more to be done, even if it is not client chargeable. Unfortunately, in many firms, a slowdown in work can generate a subtle change in commitment, which, if left unchecked, will seriously compromise the firm.
  4. Serious decline in “cross-selling”

    Similar to a shift in work from associates to partners, a serious decline in cross-selling may be an indication that partners are holding on to more work, perhaps because they are concerned about the amount of work available in the firm. Many firms do a poor job of cross-selling, so just an absence of it is not necessarily an indicator of storms ahead. But, a significant reduction in the share of work cross-sold could be such a leading indicator. Managers should be alert to cross-selling levels generally (through monitoring “import-export” statistics at the practice level), and measuring performance against established cross-selling targets.
  5. Serious decline in new matter opening

    New clients and matters are critical to the life of the firm. In effect, they are the “sales” figures for the organization. However, because opening new matters is not generally coincidental with the revenue stream, but rather leads it by a number of months, many firm managers pay only minimal attention to the number and quality of new matters being opened.

    A drop-off in new matters may not have an impact on the level of firm activity for three to six months, because lawyers remain busy on existing work. However, as these matters are completed, lawyers start to become idle.

    Three months later there is a related drop in revenue. However, this is an indicator that can be spotted well in advance of revenue drop-offs, and efforts can be made to ratchet up marketing activities before people run out of work to do. Such aggressive action may be able to head off, or at least soften, a serious decline in firm performance.
  6. Significant increases in “closed door” conversations

    Most firms pride themselves on having an “open door” environment. But, there are any number of things which appropriately must be kept “behind closed doors.” Unfortunately, among the most common closed door discussions, particularly for those not involved in management, are those about “what's wrong with the firm” and about forming new firms, as well as discussions with headhunters and prospective new employers. If you notice significant increases in the amount of time lawyers' doors are shut, it may be a time to make serious efforts to improve communications with the specific partners involved. Often, they feel as though no one is paying attention to their issues and concerns, leading to significant disaffection and the potential for departures.

    An extension of this issue, of course, is an increase in lawyer departments. Departure of recent laterals should be particularly troubling, as it may signal an attempt to “get out of Dodge” before it is too late.
  7. Bickering over compensation

    In most situations, tensions over compensation are generated through perceived inequities in the application of the compensation system, a management failure. Usually, there is a perception that under-productive lawyers, often “cronies” of the management team, are benefiting well beyond the value of their contributions. Such tensions can have a rapid and meaningful role in triggering key lawyer departures, and the resulting downward spiral in the firm. Management must be vigilant in assuring first, that there is no basis for perceptions of inequality, and second, that the compensation system is clearly understood by all firm partners as supportive of the firm's strategy.

    A subset of fighting over compensation is increasing tension regarding “origination.”

    Fights over new business credit can erode performance significantly. It can also be an early warning sign that the firm may be headed for a crisis. This is due to four separate but related issues.

    First, these fights are an indication that the compensation system is not, or is not perceived to be, assuring that those who make marketing contributions to the firm are properly rewarded. As a result, individuals make sure “their numbers” look strong, further distorting compensation data

    Second, credit fights are often signs of poor client service. Partners are unwilling to devote the appropriate time to clients for whom they receive “no credit.”

    Third, credit fights suggest that partners are hoarding their clients to assure their future compensation and options. The result is that lawyers are less integrated into and dependent on the firm, and more flexible to move rapidly when an opportunity arises.

    Finally, when these tensions occur, it is usually the case that the lawyers feeling short-changed are the younger partners with high levels of responsibility for managing and servicing the clients. In many cases, these partners actually have a following with the client, and may be able to walk out with some or all of the business.
  8. Excessive interest in serving on “management”

    Developing sound management is a critical function for any business organization. But, in most firms, particularly small to medium-sized firms, the best choices for management positions are obvious. Whenever lawyers spend a lot of time debating who should be in various management roles, it is a clear indication that there is significant dissatisfaction and perhaps lack of trust among the partners. This must be corrected quickly, or the inevitable result will be departures, often beginning with those who expressed the greatest dissatisfaction.

    Similarly, high-quality management takes a significant investment of time. However, usually it takes a significant investment of time from a limited number of the right people—the managing partner, practice group leaders, and a few others. Most of the lawyers should be primarily focused on marketing, serving clients, mentoring and a few other basic endeavors. Sometimes, it seems as though everyone has some role in management, committees seem to multiply (and for every additional person added to a committee, the time for meetings increases), and lawyers spend more time on whatever task they have been assigned than they do on their basic responsibilities.

    Such situations are a sign that the firm has lost focus on what it takes to be successful. In many cases, the “management” roles serve as a justification for not doing the things the partners should be doing. The result is the law firm equivalent of “Nero fiddling while Rome burned.”
  9. Build up in work-in-progress and accounts receivable and increasing write-offs

    Significant build-ups in and declining value of inventory are a result of management neglect and lack of personal partner accountability. Partners are usually not motivated to write anything off because it will generally reflect poorly on their own performance. In addition, they are frequently motivated to accept poor quality business simply to get credit for the revenues. The result is a buildup of inventory unlikely to ever be collected. Management should monitor inventory aggressively, and force at least an annual clean-up to ensure appropriate accounting and performance measurement.
  10. Unfocused or nonexistent strategy

    This may be the longest lead-time indicator available, and it is not completely reliable. However, there have been few, if any, law firm failures where the firm had a clear, sound and well-understood strategic focus. Clear strategic vision is an excellent vehicle to bring focus on all of the various components of success, and may be the best means available to steer clear of business problems.

There are a number of other potential warning signs that may be subtler but are also important. However, those listed are all clear indicators of problems in the firm. While any one of these signs does not automatically indicate your firm is about to crash, they all suggest the need for management intervention.

And if a number of them begin to appear together, management is well-advised to focus on clearing the clouds away before the storm breaks.
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About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is a prominent figure in the legal placement industry, known for his expertise in attorney placements and his extensive knowledge of the legal profession.

With over 25 years of experience, he has established himself as a leading voice in the field and has helped thousands of lawyers and law students find their ideal career paths.

Barnes is a former federal law clerk and associate at Quinn Emanuel and a graduate of the University of Chicago College and the University of Virginia Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar Finalist at the University of Chicago and a member of the University of Virginia Law Review. Early in his legal career, he enrolled in Stanford Business School but dropped out because he missed legal recruiting too much.

Barnes' approach to the legal industry is rooted in his commitment to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. He believes that the key to success in the legal profession is to be proactive, persistent, and disciplined in one's approach to work and life. He encourages lawyers to take ownership of their careers and to focus on developing their skills and expertise in a way that aligns with their passions and interests.

One of how Barnes provides support to lawyers is through his writing. On his blog,, and, he regularly shares his insights and advice on a range of topics related to the legal profession. Through his writing, he aims to empower lawyers to control their careers and make informed decisions about their professional development.

One of Barnes's fundamental philosophies in his writing is the importance of networking. He believes that networking is a critical component of career success and that it is essential for lawyers to establish relationships with others in their field. He encourages lawyers to attend events, join organizations, and connect with others in the legal community to build their professional networks.

Another central theme in Barnes' writing is the importance of personal and professional development. He believes that lawyers should continuously strive to improve themselves and develop their skills to succeed in their careers. He encourages lawyers to pursue ongoing education and training actively, read widely, and seek new opportunities for growth and development.

In addition to his work in the legal industry, Barnes is also a fitness and lifestyle enthusiast. He sees fitness and wellness as integral to his personal and professional development and encourages others to adopt a similar mindset. He starts his day at 4:00 am and dedicates several daily hours to running, weightlifting, and pursuing spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Barnes is a strong advocate for community service and giving back. He volunteers for the University of Chicago, where he is the former area chair of Los Angeles for the University of Chicago Admissions Office. He also serves as the President of the Young Presidents Organization's Century City Los Angeles Chapter, where he works to support and connect young business leaders.

In conclusion, Harrison Barnes is a visionary legal industry leader committed to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. Through his work at BCG Attorney Search, writing, and community involvement, he empowers lawyers to take control of their careers, develop their skills continuously, and lead fulfilling and successful lives. His philosophy of being proactive, persistent, and disciplined, combined with his focus on personal and professional development, makes him a valuable resource for anyone looking to succeed in the legal profession.

About BCG Attorney Search

BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit

Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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