I recently attended an event at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. It is a building steeped in tradition, with impressively high arches in its Great Hall that resembles something like a cathedral.
Yet, as one judge pointed out that evening, its grandeur only means something if the justice it represents remains accessible to all—not just the rich and powerful, but also the poor and lowly. That means continually looking for ways to help them access good legal advice.
The event, to help raise money for pro bono charities in the U.K., was a reminder that the longest-standing legal institutions only continue to hold relevance if they continue to adapt.
It is a message that holds true for elite commercial law firms the world over. From the heights of Manhattan to rural India. From European competition law to U.S. IP litigation. Being an important and established part of the profession does not guarantee future success.
When even the mighty Cravath, Swaine & Moore has to introduce bonus pools and modify its lockstep you can be sure that even the most deeply-rooted leaders are not assured of staying in power forever.
The elite Manhattan firm may retain its golden status in commercial law but it too is having to move with the times to stay competitive against the likes of Kirkland & Ellis, which is one of several firms to have hired Cravath partners in recent years.
The firm’s latest move is just one of many examples of the old world meeting the new. In all parts of the globe the story is the same.
In India, an interesting case study is emerging in which the traditional power structures are coming under pressure.
An excellent analysis by senior Asia reporter Jessica Seah explains that much of the country’s top tier commercial work is handled by relatively small group of local firms, which tend to be family-owned and run. That may have been fine years ago, but succession concerns are arising for the latest generation of junior lawyers. Simply planning to hand the firm over to the owner’s children is not a great sales pitch to potential recruits.
The issues are helping a new group of challenger firms with different business models to grow quickly.
Given the Indian legal market remains closed to non-domestic law firms, it is especially notable that there are calls for change. This is not just due to the effect of globalisation. No place, however self-contained, is immune to the demands of the modern era.
And what could be a better representation of the old world than Slaughter and May, the blue-blooded elite British institution founded in 1889, around the time of Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria.
Slaughters caused a big social media reaction last week when Law.com International reported that the firm planned to have a bring-your-dog-to-work day.
The idea is not radical. Many other law firms have done such things. But the idea that such a storied institution felt the need to implement such measures, presumably to help maintain staff morale, felt like a step too far for some on social media.
And yet, why should such measures be surprising? Should the established order, the old world, always remain exactly the same? Slaughters partners would certainly dislike ‘old world’ tag – the firm might have maintained a steady course in its firm strategy, but it likes to think of itself as being on the cutting edge in technology, for example.
Sometimes a change is not just opportunistic, it is necessary.
In Asia, the most obvious form of adaptation taking place is with regards to Hong Kong and Singapore.
Goodwin Procter last week became the latest firm to launch in Singapore. In the last year firms including Addleshaw Goddard, McDermott Will & Emery and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe have all refocused their Asia practices from Hong Kong to Singapore as they seek out the region’s most sensible location for political and economic stability.
New geographical popularity is also evident in some parts of America, where in the last week two firms—McDermott and Ashurst—have launched offices in Austin, Texas, which has suddenly become a hotspot for IP litigation.
And in Europe, U.S.-led law firms are rapidly building up their competition and litigation practices in Brussels as they continue to adapt to a post-Brexit world. Even partners at the largest and most successful European law firms, such as Allen & Overy, are on the move.
At the same time, there are certain groups of lawyers that are finding their feet in the modern era.
Previously unheralded knowledge management lawyers have found themselves at the forefront of law firms’ thinking amid the pivot to remote working.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ lawyers gathered for their first-ever conference in Canada this month. That might sound strange given the country is one of the most progressive in the world, but those at the conference heard how money “is flowing around the world funding religious groups” to push anti-gay legislation. The legal industry is only just catching up.
That the Canada conference was organised entirely by junior associates and students shows that it is the next generation that are often the drivers of change.
The new world is coming whether the established elite are ready for it or not.