Doom and Gloom for the legal profession - it's coming


Many of my friends and clients know me as a very optimistic person so this post may surprise them.  I feel like I am about to watch the next dot com crash only I am not talking about the internet or high tech.

I have held this belief for many months and I believe that the economic indicators that can hurt the legal profession are gaining momentum.  How much longer can the legal profession remain insulated from the market realities?  I say not long at all.

Our legal profession is in for very rough times. My message to Managing Partners is not to become pessimistic but simply to have a contingency plan in place.

Most firms will:
a) continue to be hourly billers (for the most part)
b) plan for extensions of the historic linear revenue and profit per partner growth
c) perhaps fine tune by de-equitizing or closing an unprofitable office or two
but few will create a contingency plan for:
a) dramatic drops in demand for many traditionally hot practice areas
b) over-staffing (at all levels and in most practice areas)
c) the cancer of internally competitive behavior as the pie shrinks
Those inclined to tell me I am crazy I ask to wait six months following the next US election – then I will eat this post if I was wrong.

I love our profession and want only the best for it so I hope the smart Managing Partners out there will prove that great firms can thrive through adversity – especially when your competitors are not capable of doing so.

My heart hopes I am wrong – but my mind tells me otherwise.  I decided that down the road it would be no good to say “I knew it” if I lacked the courage to post it now.

Your comments are most welcome, as always.

Addendum:

Patrick Lamb posted the following comment both here and on his own popular blog: In Search of Perfect Client Service in his post: Gerry Riskin's Forecast: Stormy Times Ahead.

I think he deserves a response:

Patrick’s comment/question:    Gerry--very powerful post.  Not one that I disagree with at all, but can you share with us the signs you see that lead you to this conclusion?  And are the elections tied to result or simply a benchmark for the time by which you think the changes will be apparent?  Ciao.

My response:  The US election is a process that sees powerful interest groups exercising their discretion in a manner which will increase the probability of their preferred candidate(s) being elected.  As a result, a temporary and indeed unsustainable economic climate may be manifested.   I think things get very real about six months after US presidential elections.  With outcomes certain, interest groups lose their motivation in a hurry – at least for a while.   As for the indicators themselves, I am afraid to start because where do I finish?  However, here are some things to examine:

    Currency fluctuations
    Price of oil
    Price of precious metals
    Increase and decrease in “real” jobs
    Geographic location of those jobs
    Political stability of job locations
    Foreign relations as they affect business
    Balance of Trade between countries and regions
    Housing markets (not just prices – but demand)
    Auto market (demand)
    Credit levels (or should I say “debt levels”)
    Interest rates (they are not falling, in fact, get ready…)
    The advent of the largely unregulated Hedge Fund industry
    The establishment pensions that invest in Hedge Funds
    The Domino effect – how one indicator impacts many others

And specific to the legal profession:
   
    The disparity between views of General Counsel and Outside Law Firms
    Associate starting salaries (and consequential impact on all salaries)
    “De-equitization of partners” trend
    “Law firms going public” (anticipated) trend
    The obsession by partners on remuneration
    The expectation of continued increasing revenues, PPP and PPL
    The surrealism of the financial expectations of new lawyers
    Comments from Citigroup’s law firm market specialists

Disclaimer:  Yes, I obtained a business degree before law and yes I studied economics and yes I subscribe to reliable publications like The Economist but I do not profess to be able to predict the stock market or future currency fluctuations.  In fact, I will admit that my post is based to a large extent on a hunch – intuition (I read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell so maybe this is OK).

Punchline:  If there were a fund that invested in the legal profession worldwide (at least in the western world) I am not a buyer – I might even summon the courage to put some money at risk by “selling short”.

In closing, perhaps not you, Patrick but there are many who will think I am completely wrong – I not only respect their right to hold that view, I hope that their view prevails.  I post this because if there I seven a significant possibility I am right, as stated in my original post:  “My message to Managing Partners is not to become pessimistic but simply to have a contingency plan in place.”

Addendum #2:  In light of the stock market tumble today, I thought I should clarify that this post was not a reaction to it but rather done before today and scheduled to auto post after midnight this AM - here is an image from my aggregator to verify:

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Comments (1) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Patrick Lamb - August 3, 2007 7:51 PM

Gerry--very powerful post. Not one that I disagree with at all, but can you share with us the signs you see that lead you to this conclusion? And are the elections tied to result or simply a benchmark for the time by which you think the changes will be apparent? Ciao.

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