Happy, productive staff are more important than chasing growth for growth’s sake, according to an authoritative sector survey of independent law firms.

Legal publisher LexisNexis’s annual bellwether report, The Art of Success, claims to identify ‘a new generation of enlightened decision-makers, who’ve deliberately walked away from life in the top tier, with its high pressure “billable hours” culture, in order to create a new kind of firm, with a focus on quality over quantity’.

More than half of respondents identified quality of legal expertise as the biggest criterion contributing to their firm’s success, followed by financial sustainability and treating staff with respect. Support for flexible or remote working was regarded as the least significant contributor to success.

Good staff morale is among the top three ‘satisfaction drivers’ behind the respondent firms’ ethos.

Nearly eight in 10 respondents had experienced poor staff morale in the past. Other complaints included lack of mentoring, the stress of a ‘billable hours’ culture, lack of common goals across partners, unreasonable workload for junior staff, poor financial management, too many levels of reporting and unsustainable equity partner drawings. One respondent said: ‘What annoys me is the attitude of “it was like that in my day”… aren’t we supposed to be progressive? Aren’t we supposed to learn from these things?’

More than two-thirds think the top priority for a good lawyer is understanding how best to apply the law to the client’s benefit. However, only 11% think a sound grasp of the business world is particularly important.

Almost nine in 10 firms said they were either stable or growing, the highest since LexisNexis published its first bellwether report in 2013.

Meanwhile, another annual survey of the sector, from business services group MHA, reported a widening gap in growth rates between large and small firms in 2016. Net profits at large firms grew by an average of 4% while sole practitioners reported a 4% decrease.