The new "2023 Report on the State of the Legal Market" shows that as legal demand falters and other key metrics remain mixed, uncertainty in 2023 may cloud law firms leaders’ thinking
In the latter part of 2022 and continuing into the new year, multiple challenges have emerged to threaten law firm profitability, including falling demand and productivity, rising expenses, changing client preferences, and economic turmoil.
Indeed, one key metric — profits-per-equity partner (PPEP) — is down for the first time since 2009, which occurred during the last global financial crisis.
This scenario and lessons in how law firms are attempting to navigate these choppy waters is mapped out in the 2023 Report on the State of the Legal Market, issued today by the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and the Thomson Reuters Institute.
The annual report reviews the performance of U.S. law firms and breaks down the factors that most impact financial success and drive the need for a strategic view of firms’ market positions, operations, and future plans.
This year’s report shows that throughout 2022, growing political and economic uncertainty significantly reduced clients’ appetite for transactional work — which had become the white-hot driver of demand throughout 2021 and the early part of 2022. Indeed, possibly the most prominent development in the legal industry in 2022 was the substantial slowing in demand growth that firms experienced throughout the year. On a year-to-date basis through November 2022, overall legal demand contracted by 0.1%, which stood in stark contrast to the 3.7% growth rate recorded for all of 2021.
Not surprisingly, this collapse in demand growth, especially in the transactional practice, fell more heavily on larger law firms. At the same time, many law firms continued to add new lawyers at a healthy pace. As a result, productivity declined, even as direct and overhead expenses remained high, much to law firms’ dismay.
The combination of all these factors pulled down PPEP from its 2021 levels, although it still remains in a relatively good position historically.
However, the report shows that growing uncertainty over macro-issues, such as economic sluggishness in the United States and throughout the world, the challenge of returning to the office, and the rising costs of talent all set the stage for a very difficult 2023 for the legal industry.
One interesting note to the report was the relative strength of the Midsize law firm segment, which stood alone among other market segments in seeing positive demand growth in 2022. The report attributes this to clients’ willingness to move work in search of high-quality but more cost-effective outside counsel.
Looking to the leadership of Luis Urzúa
The report also noted that in times of uncertainty, organizations have a tendency to hunker down to protect against both real and imagined dangers. To steer a firm successfully through such periods requires leaders to embrace somewhat different priorities and be willing to experiment with new ways of operating.
To illustrate further, the report relates the incident of the terrible mine collapse in Chile in August 2010 that trapped 33 miners for 69 days deep underground. Facing certain catastrophe, the miners rallied around their shift foreman, Luis Urzúa, who was a recognized leader and trusted by the men.
The report notes that Urzúa’s leadership skills were a key reason that the miners survived. Taking note that organizations rarely if ever face uncertainties as severe or as consequential as those that confronted the Chilean miners, the report states that nevertheless, it is often in extreme situations that critical leadership traits are most visible.
Urzúa’s leadership manner emphasized telling the truth, requiring teamwork, and staying focused to great success. It allowed his team of miners to concentrate on the singular task at hand — surviving their ordeal together — despite the dire circumstances in which they found themselves.
The report also suggests that as law firms confront a period of significant economic and market uncertainty, the lessons that were exemplified by the leadership of Luis Urzúa can provide some useful guidance for many law firm leaders as they navigate the uncertainties of 2023 and beyond.