2018 Law Firms in Transition Survey Released

Written by
Tom Clay and Eric Seeger
Altman Weil

Published
May 29, 2018

May 29, 2018 • by Tom Clay and Eric Seeger

Half of all US law firms with 50 or more lawyers participated in the 10th annual survey

May 21, 2018 – Altman Weil’s 2018 Law Firms in Transition Survey has been released.  Now in its tenth year, the survey has tracked a continual shift in awareness, acceptance – and some persistent resistance – to legal market change. In the span of a decade, we've seen law firms recover from the depths of the recession only to find themselves in a more volatile marketplace characterized by client demands for greater value at lower prices, non-traditional competitors taking market share and new technologies disrupting the status quo.

"Unlike the recession and its aftermath, the threat to law firms in 2018 is broader and more nuanced,” says Altman Weil principal and survey co-author Tom Clay. "It's not just an economic threat. Now there are clear, systemic disruptors in play that pose a threat to the sustainability of the traditional law firm business model."

Highlights from the 2018 survey include:

- Under-performing lawyers: 49% of law firms failed to meet their annual billable hour targets in 2017; 51% of all firms say their equity partners are not busy enough; 59% of firms report non-equity partners are underutilized; and 83% of firms report that they have at least some chronically under-performing lawyers. 

- Widespread performance volatility: While 45% of law firms report their revenue per lawyer (RPL) was up in each of the last three years, an almost equal number (44%) said their RPL was both up and down over the same period. In 11% of firms, RPL was flat or down in all three years. Firms under 250 lawyers were more likely to report performance volatility over time. 

- Non-traditional competitors taking market share: Aside from traditional law firm competitors, 70% of firms are losing business to corporate law departments in-sourcing legal work; 26% of firms have lost business to clients' use of technology tools reducing their need for law firm services; and 16% are losing out to alternative legal service providers. 9% of all firms are losing work to the Big Four accounting firms, and that number jumps to 27% in firms with over 1,000 lawyers.  

- The law firm value proposition: When asked if their law firm projects a distinct and compelling value that differentiates them from other similar firms, a full 50% of firm leaders said no. In a market characterized by intense competition for limited and shrinking demand, this lack of differentiation can be an enormous problem.

- Firms not feeling enough pain: Despite under-performance, overcapacity, financial volatility, and encroaching competition from a variety of sources, 59% of law firms say they are "not feeling enough economic pain" to motivate more significant change in the way they deliver legal services.

“Most law firms measure their success in annual increments, but that kind of short-term thinking can create a false sense of security,” says Altman Weil principal and survey co-author Eric Seeger. “Few law firms have a long-term, market-based strategy, or recognize that by proactively embracing new methodologies and technologies they will create the differentiators they need to compete effectively going forward.”

Survey Methodology
Conducted in March and April 2018, the Law Firms in Transition Survey polled Managing Partners and Chairs at 801 US law firms with 50 or more lawyers.  Completed surveys were received from 398 firms (49.7%), including 45% of the 500 largest US law firms and 52% of the Am Law 200.

The complete survey report includes sections on industry trends, market demand and competition, productivity, profitability, pricing, efficiency of legal service delivery, lawyer staffing strategies and economic performance. 

It is available to download at: www.altmanweil.com/LFiT2018.

About Altman Weil
Founded in 1970, Altman Weil, Inc. is dedicated exclusively to the legal profession.  It provides management consulting services to law firms, law departments and legal vendors worldwide.   The firm is independently owned by its professional consultants, who have backgrounds in law, industry, finance, marketing, administration and government.   More information on Altman Weil can be found at www.altmanweil.com.

Contact Information

Survey Co-Authors:

Tom Clay
(610) 886-2000
tsclay@altmanweil.com

Eric Seeger
(267) 908-9781
eseeger@altmanweil.com

Download the full survey

Altman Weil