No firm is too big to fail in this highly competitive space.

One King & Wood Mallesons slogan styles it as ‘the global elite firm for the next century’. But at the time of writing its European arm was unable to pay staff and headed for administration. These seeming death throes raise uncomfortable questions for the legal market’s ‘high end’.

Elite firms play for high stakes – profits per equity partner at KWM have been around the $1m mark. Any bid to take PEP to the top level of the global elite ($3m) requires confidence and investment. In this unforgiving world, some law firm leaders focus on the fear of falling behind their rivals – in reach and personal rewards – above the fear of falling over.

Prior to landing new clients and plum instructions, firms with ambition therefore offer lawyers top dollar and become ‘strategically positioned in the world’s growth markets and financial centres’. The risks, though, are huge and often unacknowledged; being a fraction of the size of a global bank, no law firm is actually too big to fail in this highly competitive space.

Still, there have been some positive aspects to the events of the last fortnight. From junior lawyers arriving at KWM to do work they know they cannot be paid for, to the response of the Law Society and firms in securing places for the firm’s trainees, there was a sense of the legal community behaving as a profession should.