As the pandemic has shown how remote working can provide major benefits for legal practices, clients and lawyers, the traditional law firm could be facing an existential threat

After seeing off so many high street retailers, the irony was not lost when Amazon recently announced it would open physical stores. This ultimate disruptor had come full circle.

Helen Miles, gunnercooke

Helen Miles, gunnercooke

There are parallels with the consultancy model of law firms, which experts say stands on the brink of permanently breaking the hegemony of the traditional practice. While many of these were built on lawyers working remotely, a significant number have also taken to opening bases in city centres, creating a hybrid model appealing to lawyers nervous about ditching the office environment for good.

One consultant firm, gunnercooke, opened an office in WeWorks’ Birmingham facility with the likes of Helen Miles in mind. The Midlands-based pensions lawyer, with 25 years’ experience in the sector, was lured from Squire Patton Boggs last summer. Miles cited gunnercooke’s flexible model as one of the biggest draws.

‘I am quite an independent person and happy to work in that way, and I’m a business person and not just a lawyer,’ said Miles. ‘We have a city centre office and I look forward to going in [when the restrictions are lifted]. There is remote working in the firm but also remote team bonding, and the firm really makes an effort. It is a balance – sometimes you want to see people, but home working is better than working in an open-plan office.’

There is remote working in the firm but also remote team bonding and the firm really makes an effort. It is a balance – sometimes you want to see people but home working is better than working in an open-plan office

Helen Miles, gunnercooke

Miles is not alone. A report last month by investment bank Arden Partners suggested that within five years one-third of lawyers could be working under a consultancy model.

John Llewellyn-Lloyd, head of business services at Arden, said there is potential for an existing disruptor or even a new entrant to have 10,000 lawyers on its books. This could be possible for a so-called traditional firm, but that would require the partnership model to adapt with uncharacteristic speed, he said.

The likes of gunnercooke, Setfords, Excello Law and Keystone have all emerged in recent years as rivals, rather than curiosities, to the legal establishment. Keystone and gunnercooke are both in, or close to, the top-100 firms based on turnover, and many are backed by private equity or stock market investment. Their model largely centralises back-office operations and allows the lawyers to operate flexibly as consultants keeping a share of the fees they bring in, rather than as equity partners.

Those who might have scoffed at this model in the past have spent a year working in the same way as consultant lawyers, but without many of the perks. Paul Bennett, a partner at advisory firm Bennett Briegal, said many lawyers will already be planning when to hand in their notice once offices reopen.

‘I don’t think the traditional law firm with people chained to the desk was attractive even pre-Covid,’ said Bennett. ‘It is now all about working in a new and different way. We are about to see over the next 18 months that the number of people wanting to work differently away from the office – either as a consultant or through a traditional firm that has recalibrated – will be a change on an “industrial revolution” scale. Covid has totally changed the landscape.

‘It used to be the awkward squad who didn’t fit in who went off to be consultants. Now we’re talking about high-profile lawyers with a big client following acting to suit their needs and not the firm’s.’

Llewellyn-Lloyd agrees that the pandemic has played a huge part in this surge, but not just in spurring lawyers to find new ways of working.

‘Covid has proved at a stroke to clients that their lawyer can work in this fashion,’ he explained. ‘Then it comes down to costs. This model allows them to work at cheaper cost as the whole operation is about efficiency from a central office.’

While firms can attract senior lawyers under the premise they can work more independently, there is concern about the pipeline of junior lawyers who may not suit consultancy work. Gunnercooke, among others, is addressing this issue with a programme specifically for emerging talent.

Manda Banerji, chair of the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division, said its members nearing five years’ PQE appreciate flexibility and a better work-life balance, although she stressed the importance of checking what supervision will be available.

It remains to be seen how traditional firms will fight this newly emergent threat. In the ongoing discussion about when and how often lawyers will return to offices, the bigger question is whether some will return at all.