As the ALSP market continues to grow, it's already showing signs of a maturing market, including a lean towards consolidation
The market for alternative legal services providers (ALSPs) has been growing strongly, as documented by the Alternative Legal Services Providers 2023 Report, produced jointly by the Thomson Reuters Institute, the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown Law, and the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.
Yet the growth rate shown in the most recent report still came as a bit of a surprise: a 20% compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) for the past two years, resulting in a current market size of $20.6 billion. In interviews with leaders from more than a dozen ALSPs, respondents said they expected standout growth in the sector to continue, and survey data from the client side supports these expectations. Among respondents from the largest law firms, 26% said they plan to increase spending on ALSPs, while only 3% said they expect their spending to fall. Within corporate law departments, 21% expect to be spending more on ALSPs in the future, with just 8% expecting spending to drop.
Interview respondents consistently referred to the ALSP market as “opening up” over the past two years, citing a variety of catalysts: changes wrought by the global pandemic, the impact of the Big Four auditing and accounting firms, and the shrinking size of many corporate legal departments, among others. ALSPs are taking advantage of those changes to greatly expand their service offerings; and while the industry is young, a number of ALSP leaders said they’re beginning to see a trend more commonly associated with mature industries: consolidation.
More growth ahead?
A sales director at a U.S.-based ALSP says that ALSPs have moved through the very early stages of the growth curve associated with any new innovation and are now poised for accelerated take-up. Among customers, the innovator and early adopter segments of that base have been using ALSPs for years, and their positive experiences are clearing the way for a wider mass market. “All of a sudden, people will say, ‘Okay, it’s safe now,’” the sales director says, “which will lead to even more expansion.”
He also pointed out that the traditional legal market leaves behind a lot of unmet demand. “Clients simply cannot afford all of the legal and regulatory advice they need to buy,” he says, especially if law firms remain wedded to the billable hour. “There’s this latent demand out there, and if you change your model, you can grab more market share, because [clients] just cannot afford to buy answers by the hour.”
The Big Four have also had a positive effect, says the founder and CEO of a U.S.-based ALSP, admitting that “this is going to sound strange.” The Big Four have convinced many general counsel, CFOs, and CEOs that business and law shouldn’t be so separate, the founder explains. “We found that the Big Four moving into the space has actually just opened up the top of the funnel — it’s so much larger now.”
ALSPs also get a boost from the fact that corporate law departments are shrinking — even though their workloads are not. A founder of an independent U.K.-based ALSP echoes that sentiment. “One of the things we see is that a bigger client doesn’t mean a bigger law department,” the founder says. “Inside legal counsel and inside legal operations are shrinking.” Meanwhile, he adds, inside teams have too much work, or work that isn’t a good fit for their capabilities. Legal departments are even bringing in procurement professionals — a relatively new part of the legal landscape — to try to close that gap in a cost-effective way.
Not surprisingly, the pandemic had an impact as well. “The stigma of offshore support has worn off,” says the vice-president of a U.S.-based ALSP. “We all ended up working from home, and we learned it doesn’t matter where the person is that you’re talking with.”
Together, these trends mean opportunities for ALSPs. The largest seems to be in regulatory & compliance work and advisory work, as well as in technology consulting. ALSPs are also looking to expand into specific service areas, such as labor & employment law, and into new geographies.
The impact of regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) have produced “a huge focus” on privacy, says a U.S.-based ALSP leader. His firm is partnering with a technology company to provide faster and more focused data breach review. They’re also spending “a significant amount of time” helping clients update their contracts to reflect the new laws.
The new regulations are especially hard to navigate for those organizations that do business across countries and regions. “It’s increasingly complex to operate businesses in multiple jurisdictions and try to manage all of them,” explains the CEO of a law firm captive ALSP in the U.S. “For a lot of our clients, some of their biggest needs are just better use of some of the tools that exist that make it easier to have a good lens on the range of matters our clients have in different jurisdictions.”
Technology consulting, as mentioned in the ALSP 2023 Report, is also a growth area — one that overlaps significantly with legal operations. A partner at a law firm ALSP says his firm is regularly asked to weigh in on matters such as how to manage work, how many lawyers to hire, and where those lawyers should be located. On the technology side, his clients want advice about which technology solution to buy, how it should be implemented, and how it can be made to work best for them. The partner described a typical request as one in which clients say: “I bought some technology, and it’s crap, and it doesn’t work. Help me, because I’ve spent half a million pounds on it, and I can’t admit it doesn’t work.”
Growth through acquisition
As ALSPs grow, it’s not surprising that they become more attractive acquisition targets, fueling consolidation. “In the early stage of this industry we were trying to say, ‘Who do we acquire?’” says the co-founder of a U.S.-based ALSP. “There was nobody of any size to acquire. They were all tiny.” Another ALSP founder expects consolidation to continue, as companies that are strong in one service area — for example, discovery — look to buy a competitor that is strong in a complementary area, such as legal operations.
A partner at a law firm ALSP is already noticing that his competitive set is smaller. “Four or five years ago, I think there were 10-plus providers in the market. There might still be, but you certainly don’t see them. You probably see three or four at the most.” Now, he’s finding his clients are using ALSPs quite heavily, and hire just a handful of providers. His diagnosis of his market segment could just as well apply to the ALSP market as a whole: “It’s grown up,” he says. “It’s matured as a service offering.”
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