February 17, 2016

Peer Monitor Economic Index Drops in Fourth Quarter

Positive demand for 2015, but weakening rates and productivity

EAGAN, Minn – The Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Economic Index (PMI), which measures the relative health of the large law firm market, fell two points to 50 in the fourth quarter – its second consecutive quarterly decline. Weakening rates and productivity, coupled with flat demand, pressured firm profitability for the quarter.

Demand1 for large law firm services was flat in the fourth quarter, breaking a string of seven consecutive quarterly gains – the longest winning streak since the recession. For 2015 as a whole, demand was up only 0.3%, compared with 0.7% in 2014.

Worked rate growth2 was only 2.4% – the lowest rate growth since Q1 2011. Combined with near-record low collected realization rates, the weak rate growth in 2015 was a major restriction on firm revenue growth. 

Productivity declined 1.2% in the fourth quarter. While productivity has been dropping for the last two years, the decline accelerated in 2015, falling 1.1% for the year, compared with 0.6% for 2014. Hours worked per lawyer have reached their lowest level in more than three years.

Transactional practices remained strong. Corporate work rose 1.9% in the fourth quarter, and 2.2% for the year. Real estate was up 2.5% in Q4 and 3.6% for the year. Tax work slipped 0.3% in the quarter and was down 0.1% for the year.

Litigation, meanwhile, fell for the thirteenth consecutive quarter, dropping 2.2% in the quarter and down 1.0% for the year. However, the declines in litigation seen in 2015 were almost entirely within the Am Law Second Hundred sector. Both Am Law 100 and midsize firms saw flat demand for litigation, a slight improvement from previous years. 

Direct expenses jumped 1.8 percent in the fourth quarter – the slowest growth rate seen over the last two years. Meanwhile, overhead expenses accelerated slightly, rising 2.7%.

A copy of the Q4 2015 PMI report can be downloaded here: https://peermonitor.thomsonreuters.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/PMI_Q4_2015_FINAL.pdf

The report amplifies many of the themes discussed in the recent “2016 Report on the State of the Legal Market” jointly produced by Peer Monitor and Georgetown Law Center, such as how an increasingly competitive and fragmented legal market necessitates new strategic thinking from law firms.

“While the law firm market scored yet another positive year in 2015, momentum is clearly slowing,” said Mike Abbott, vice president, Client Management and Global Thought Leadership, Thomson Reuters. “Demand was flat in the fourth quarter, and rate growth and productivity continue to weaken. With growing concerns about a global economic slowdown, firms need to focus on identifying opportunities to achieve greater growth, operational efficiency and profitability in 2016.”

The PMI is produced by Thomson Reuters, and is a composite index of law firm market performance using real-time data drawn from major law firms in the United States and key international markets. A PMI of 65 or greater indicates strong law firm market performance.

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1 Demand is defined as the growth in billable hours.
2 Worked rates are the negotiated rates as determined by the matter value. Worked rates are often referred to as agreed rates.



Scott Augustin
Thomson Reuters
Tel: +1 651 848 5793
Email: scott.augustin@thomsonreuters.com