Law Firm Leadership Series 2023

A new era for law firms


A new era for law firms

Our research over the last two years has identified a number of challenges and opportunities that law firm leaders are getting to grips with. Last year’s Series proposed that law firms seemed to fit more or less into three categories. The developments we have discussed with law firm leaders, and their responses, have begun to provide us with a glimpse of what law firms may look like in a few years, regardless of where they are currently in terms of operating models.

Throughout this year's Series, we have come back to a number of issues; law firm culture, working patterns, the work/life balance conundrum, the use of new technologies in particular AI and issues around reward.

Across all these issues, we have found a split between law firms that are willing to look at innovative, and sometimes groundbreaking, new ways of doing business and those firms that are being more traditionalist and continuing to rely on the operating models and cultures that have seen them survive financial crises and pandemics.

Culture and working patterns

Any workplace culture has to reflect as well as shape the values of the people. Law firms are now recruiting young people with very different attitudes to work and to work/life balances to previous generations. Some firms want to maintain or bolster their existing cultures and ways of working. The best example of this is firms putting real pressure on their people to return to the office for the majority of the time. They are driven by a desire to rebuild the workplace culture that existed pre-pandemic with long hours of working together creating a shared experience.

Other firms believe that remote and hybrid working are here to stay. They are making the new working patterns part of their culture. These firm rely on their work policies on wellbeing and work/life balance to create a different culture.


Most law firms have expected Associates to learn ‘on the job’. By working with and for Partners and other more experienced people, the Associates learn all the skills and knowledge they need to develop their careers. This approach is flexible. It allows for Associates to be allocated to meet commercial needs. It also has the substantial advantage of being ‘paid for’ by the clients. On the other hand, it relies on Partners to be teachers, mentors and communicators as well as experts in their own fields.

A number of law firm leaders we spoke to want to provide more formal and structured training to Associates. The advantages are that the training is less reliant on the skills of Partners, it is easier to introduce new skills or expertise such as those around technology or 'soft' skills around relationship building. Formal training should also be more comprehensive and balanced. The single biggest downside with this approach is the cost. The firms will have to invest in the delivery of this training and account for the loss of billable time.


The biggest change that could happen is around billing. Simply put, the impact of AI technology could make hourly billing impossible to maintain.

Law firm leaders must then decide if and how to change their pricing model. They can seek to adapt their current billing to take into account the costs and the savings related to using AI. They will still bill according to time but their rates cards will evolve to reflect the impact of AI and other technologies.

The alternative is to seek to break the link between hours and billing. Law firm leaders that wish to pursue this route will have to convince clients to accept a link between value and billing. They will have to strike a difficult balance between offering competitively priced work and profitability and margins.

It would be wrong to assume that one model or approach is inherently going to be more successful than the other. We suspect that law firms will modernise where they need to or where they feel willing and able to 'safely'.

The result will be a spectrum of law firms with some embracing all the changes and beginning to operate very differently while others will evolve more gradually by embracing change in just some areas.

This will change if it becomes clear that one approach is substantially more profitable or sustainable than the other.

From our latest round of research, it is not clear that there is a correlation between types of firm (ie Pace Setter, Mainstream or Career) and attitudes to change and innovation. Each law firm will need to consider its current operating model, its unique circumstances and its client base before deciding if and how to implement changes.

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