How Mid-Sized Firms Can Survive |

How Mid-Sized Firms Can Survive


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Has your firm identified its business goals for this year (and beyond)? Have you developed long-term strategies for securing your position in the market? Have you thought about your competitors and how they might be planning to take your business? The mid-size firm can no longer rely on the fact that they are “full-service” firms. Global mega-firms, accounting firms and other professional firms will prove to be intense competitors for work that has traditionally been dominated by mid-size law firms. To survive, mid-size firms need a focused strategic plan that clearly identifies long-term goals, present and future market position, and business development objectives. Mid-size firms pursuing rapid growth would do well to consider merger as a means of achieving long-term strategic goals in a rapidly consolidating market.
How Mid-Sized Firms Can Survive

There have been numerous changes in the 50 to 150-lawyer firm market in the last five years. During that time many New York City branch offices have doubled in size. Five years ago, there were approximately a dozen branch offices in New York with more than 50 lawyers. Today, the city is home to more than 30 branch offices with more than 50 lawyers; the average size is roughly 100 lawyers. By comparison, most of the New York based mid-size firms have not grown at the same pace and many have struggled to remain constant.

Today there are approximately 35 New York based firms within the 50 - 150 lawyer range. The numbers are dwindling as numerous mid-size firms merge, dissolve, or lose significant groups of lawyers to fuel another firm’s branch office expansion. In general, growth attempts of many mid-size firms have been thwarted due to a lack of resources and/or a diminished legal platform to compete effectively for business. In addition, some firm leaders are resistant to change or are too complacent.

Define a Position
Successful mid-size firms should seek to differentiate themselves by establishing a clearly defined position in certain sectors of the legal market. For example, a firm may opt to
  • As an industry specialist, focusing on a few select industries (e.g., health care, high-tech).
  • As a practice specialist, offering expertise in a specific practice area or limited areas (e.g., complex litigation, “bet-the-company cases”).
  • With a geographic focus, taking a regional, national or international approach.
  • By client type, offering a wide-range of services to clients that fit a specific profile (e.g., start-ups, middle-market companies, private clients, Fortune 1000).
The firms that have already moved in this direction have been very successful. They do not try to offer all services to all clients and maintain focused practices. Because they are more successful, specialized practices are also in demand as acquisition targets. Mid-size firms will continue to be absorbed by larger firms positioning themselves to go after a specific industry focus. Many of the local mid-sized firms that have shocked the community with merger announcements merged at their peak, not because they were in turmoil. They realized that in order to maintain a sophisticated practice and client base, they needed to increase the platform from which they compete dramatically to continue to recruit top associates, attract laterals and serve key clients.

The strategic planning process is critical for mid-size firms. Although a firm may consider several strategic initiatives to enhance its position in the marketplace, merger is one of the strongest and more expedient means to accomplish this. Merger is not the goal of any strategic planning process, but rather the means by which to achieve strategic goals. However, many firms approach merger without prior planning or a clear sense of the desired end result.

Firms that consider merger should spend a significant amount of time up front evaluating their current market position before examining potential merger candidates. Partners can properly plan for their firm’s future only after they are in agreement about the firm’s present state. An in-depth evaluation should address the firm’s present market position, strengths and weaknesses, clients, competitors, market trends and firm goals. At the end of the self-evaluation, firm management should be able to discuss the “business case” to justify the firm’s exploration of merger. This will need to be communicated clearly to the partnership and support for merger will need to be established. The self-evaluation should consider the following areas:
  • Practice: Analyze a history of representative matters and transactions over the past two to three years. Look for commonalties that will help you spot the strengths and weaknesses of the firm’s practice. What are the trends? Are the deals growing in size? Is the volume of deals increasing or decreasing? Does the firm have a greater market penetration in a particular industry sector or is it scattered? Is there an unmet need in the market for a particular service that your firm could offer?
  • Clients: Review your historical relationships with your top 25 clients over the past three years. Analyze the trends and speak with key clients. How do your clients view the firm’s legal services? What do they perceive to be your firm’s strengths and weaknesses? Ask about their future legal needs and make sure you are building relationships that will ensure additional work from these clients should you decide to expand. Find out the other firms that service their legal needs. Are your clients currently using other law firms that you may want to consider as possible merger partners?
  • Competition: Who is your competition? In an aggressive market like New York, it may not necessarily be the firm you think it is. Analyze how these firms have been successful and identify key factors that differentiate your firm from the competition. Be able to strongly articulate these differences to potential merger suitors.
A word of caution: do not expect a firm’s existing structural flaws to be resolved by merger. It is better for a firm to address these issues before initiating any merger discussions. Depending on the issue, merger discussions can stagnate and both sides will lose enthusiasm for what could have been a very wise combination. It is better to rid the firm of its “warts” while in the self-evaluation process than in the midst of merger negotiations (or later) at the behest of your new partner. Fix that formula compensation system, the unfunded retirement plan, and get rid of the under-performing partners first. Carrying this baggage into discussions will only hurt your firm’s negotiating position and will tarnish your marketability for future conversations.

The Ideal Partner
Once the self-evaluation is complete, your firm should develop a profile for the ideal merger partner. The criteria for the ideal merger partner will differ for every firm. Much of this profile should be based on your firm’s assessment of its present position today and its long-term potential. Finding the ideal merger partner also depends on identifying your firm’s weaknesses and knowing how to deal with them. For example, should weaker practice areas be integrated better into the rest of the practice, or should they be eliminated? Depending on the practice, your firm’s weaker practice may be attractive to a merger partner.

Many firms find it productive to assemble a merger committee charged with the compilation of voluminous in-depth research on firms that meet the profile of the ideal merger candidate. The committee should develop a manageable list of target firms, and then contact the firm’s managing partner. By taking control of the expansion process, your firm will gain better insight into the pro’s and con’s of various merger partners, each offering a slightly different set of practice strengths, cultures, management styles and future plans.

Early conversations with any merger suitor should explore each firm’s self-evaluation and business rationale for merger. If a potential partner cannot present a similar rationale, it may not be necessary to explore further discussions. If one firm is uncomfortable with what the combined firm would look like, then it probably is not the right match. But firms should not get discouraged and dismiss the possibility of merger on the basis of one or two unsuccessful initial discussions.

As you make your New Year’s resolutions, resolve to take control of your firm’s future in a market that is re-defining itself. Develop a focused strategic plan for your firm’s future growth, and consider merger as one way of realizing your business goals. Often mid-size firms are reluctant to be acquired or merge because partners fear losing their independence and autonomy. While a merger does bring about change, a law firm merger is not a corporate takeover. The merger process introduces two groups of partners to each other’s core values, practice philosophies and management styles. When done correctly, the combined firm takes the best from both firms and emerges as something better.
Interested in Learning More About Legal Hiring? Read the Definitive Guide:

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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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