Act Now…Before It’s Too Late! Can Smaller and Mid-Size Law Firms Successfully Adapt to the Changing Marketplace?

By John Remsen, Jr.

According to recent surveys conducted by The Managing Partner Forum and others, far too many smaller and mid-size law firms are doing little, if anything, to evolve and adapt in the face of rapid and accelerating change in the legal services industry.  What little innovation does occur is driven by the client in almost every case. And that’s not good if smaller and mid-size firms want to survive.

Dramatic Change Impacting the Professional

Let’s step back for a moment and consider the incredible, yet fundamental, long-term trends impacting the legal profession.  These trends are seismic in nature.

Economic Globalization

The economy is globalizing, and so are your clients.  BigLaw’s going global and law firm networks are popping up all over the place.

Oversupply of Lawyers

There are now more than 1.3 million lawyers in the US, with 44,000 more young lawyers graduating from the nation’s 203 law schools every year.  Consider that there are only 200,000 lawyers in all of China, a nation with almost five times as many people.

Commoditization of Legal Services

Just look at what insurance companies are doing to their outside defense counsel.  They know it’s a buyer’s market, and they’re clearly taking advantage of the situation. 

Disruptors Everywhere

Think Legal Zoom, AVVO and Rocket Lawyer to name a few.  ABSs (Alternative Business Structures) are thriving in the UK and elsewhere.  How long before they arrive on US shores?  These folks are out to eat your lunch.

Industry Consolidation

BigLaw’s getting bigger, and Altman Weil reports another all-time record level of merger and acquisition activity yet again this year.

Changing Workforce

Whether we like it or not, the Xs and Ys (Millennials) have different career goals and priorities. 

Innovations in Technology

From legal research to communication, technology has changed the way law firms do business in so many ways.  Remember Wang?  

Of course, there are many more trends impacting law firms, but I think we’d all agree that those listed above are profound and have resulted in tumultuous and unprecedented change.  None of these trends are going away anytime soon.  In fact, the pace of change will only accelerate according to every report we read and every expert we know.

The Lawyer Personality Revealed

Consider, as well, the lawyer personality.  According to decades of research by Dr. Larry Richard, lawyers exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Highly skeptical
  • Hate change
  • Avoid risk
  • Love autonomy
  • Low resilience

Dr. Richard has administered psychological profiles to thousands of lawyers over many years.  He wrote the article entitled “Herding Carts: The Lawyer Personality Revealed”.  His blog is called “What Makes Lawyers Tick”. 


Getting lawyers to change is not easy.  They tend to look backward, not forward.  They look for precedent and avoid anything they perceive to be the least bit risky.  How many times have you heard a senior partner say, “But that’s the way we’ve always done things around here”?

Our Recommendations to Smaller and Mid-Size Law Firms

We think it’s critically important that smaller and mid-size law firms focus attention in seven key areas to seize the day and build a prosperous future.

Strategic Planning

It all starts with a plan, yet more than 60% of smaller and mid-size law firms don’t have one.  In our opinion, every law firm, regardless of size or practice, needs a firm-wide strategic plan.  Our friend and colleague, Bob Young, past Chair of the ABA’s Law Practice Division, agrees, and goes so far as to say that not having one is management malpractice.  Keep it simple, realistic and achievable.  The evidence is compelling.  Of firms with strategic plans, 90% report positive results.

Leadership and Governance

We encourage firms to streamline governance and decision-making as much as possible, with well-defined roles and responsibilities for the managing partner, management committee and other group leaders in the firm.  Indeed, many smaller and mid-size firms are moving—albeit slowly—toward more structured governance models.

To firm leaders, we say now is the time to implement meaningful change and make tough decisions.  Over the years, we’ve observed that many managing partners want to be liked, and avoid making tough decisions.  In fact, we’ve also noticed that many firms intentionally elect weak leaders who won’t mess with the status quo. 

Marketing and Business Development

Marketing and business development are “red hot” for smaller and mid-size law firms and their leaders.  Budgets are up and more firms are hiring in-house marketing professionals.  Within the marketing budget, firms are shifting resources away from traditional marketing and into business development.  We recommend that firms start first and foremost by focusing attention on existing clients, and then go after prospective clients with a laser beam.  We like industry practice groups for a slew of reasons.

Problematic Partners

We’ll break this category into two main areas: chronic underperformance and bad behavior.  Both are unacceptable and should not be tolerated.  Leadership means having the tough conversations, putting the bad actors on probation and severing the relationship, if necessary.  But you’ve got to deal with these disruptive individuals for the long-term success of the firm.  Bullies, especially, are more destructive than you realize.  Managing partners frequently tell us that this is, by far, the toughest part of the leadership role.

Succession Planning

It’s good to see more firms starting to pay attention to succession planning, as 70% of first-generation firms do not survive their founding partners.  This includes both helping senior partners wind down, as well as grooming junior partners to lead, mentor and make rain. 

Recruiting and Retention

No doubt about it, tomorrow’s lawyers are wired differently—a whole lot differently—than the men and women occupying today’s corner offices.  They want work-life balance, evaluation and feedback and engagement.  Many don’t want to become equity partners.  Our advice?  Hire the right people and invest in them.  Consider using psychological profiles as part of your firm’s recruiting and retention program to make sure you’re making smart decisions.


Cushman & Wakefield predicts that, in a few short years, technology will surpass rent as the top expense item (excluding salaries and benefits) for most law firms.  And this comes from a firm specializing in office space.  Is your firm keeping up?

A Time to Lead

Clearly, the time has come for law firms to run more like businesses and less like loose confederations of solo practitioners. 

That means a firm-wide strategic plan.  It means bold, passionate leadership.  It means accountability for the firm’s owners.  For almost every law firm I know, it means change!  And change is hard, especially for lawyers. 

John Kotter, in his best-selling book, Leading Change, says the first step to instill meaningful change in any organization is to establish a sense of urgency.  Kotter says people must feel pain or sense catastrophe on the horizon before they’ll implement meaningful change. 

But 2015 and 2016 were pretty good years for most smaller and mid-size law firms, so many firm owners have buried their heads in the sand.  In his best-seller, Good to Great, Stephen Covey says that good is the enemy of great.  So, for most firms, things are pretty good in the short term.  Why rock the boat?

Step one is for a firm leader to create a sense of urgency among the firm’s owners that change is required if the firm is going to survive in the coming years.  Show them the reports.  Circulate the articles.  Talk about it at firm meetings and retreats. 

Inspire your firm to change now, before it’s too late.  Don’t wait to lose a major client, or watch one the firm’s strongest practice groups walk out the door before you decide to act.  Now is the time to lead.


Sadly, most smaller and mid-size firms are not keeping up with the pace of change impacting the legal services industry.  In fact, many are ignoring it altogether.  And that’s not good if they want to survive. 

Times are changing.  Is your firm keeping up?

NOTE: Listed below is the primary information source to support this article.  Click on the link for the raw data.

  • MPF Leadership & Governance Survey—147 responses 

John Remsen, Jr., President & CEO of Managing Partner Forum and President of TheRemsenGroup, is widely recognized as one of the country’s leading authorities on law firm leadership, management, marketing and business development.  Since 1997, TheRemsenGroup has worked with more than 350 law firms to help them develop and implement long-term strategic objectives to improve cohesiveness, performance and profitability.  In 2002, John created The Managing Partner Forum, a highly-acclaimed conference series for law firm leaders.  He may be reached at [email protected]. 

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