Altman Weil’s annual Law Firms in Transition survey, the 2015 edition, was just published, and as usual it makes for some fascinating reading—at least for me and I suspect for many of the devotees of Adam Smith, Esq. As you may know, this is the seventh year they’ve done this survey in more or less similar form. They report that this year they polled Managing Partners and Chairs at 797 US law firms with 50 or more lawyers and received completed surveys from 320 firms (40%) including 47% of the 350 largest US firms.

That they ask many of the same questions year after year provides one of those delectable rarities in research—a time series. Better yet, if the questions and the survey audience are consistent year to year, then time series can blank out methodological quibbles: Whatever issues you might have with the question or the respondent base, at least they’re the same year upon year. So variations in answers over time presumably reveal pretty much actual changes in attitude as opposed to mere noise resulting from self-selection, ambiguous question phrasing, or other common research faux pas.

There’s a great deal of meat in the survey (it’s 124 pages in total), but today I want to view the attitudes expressed through the prism of leadership. You might want either a fresh cup of coffee or a glass of wine, depending on where the sun is in the sky at your longitude just now, before you read on, because I find the results quite unsettling on the leadership dimension.

First some data points:

  • 72% of respondents think the pace of change in the profession will increase going forward; 24% vote for “the same” and barely over 1% say “decrease” (my personal supposition is that this constitutes the “I’m exhausted—tell me it’s over already” vote); and finally, bringing up the rear is “not sure” at 2.5%.
  • In the last four years the highest vote total “decrease” has ever gathered has been 1.4%—and “increase” has seen its vote percentage go up by 12 percentage points, or 20%.
  • When asked about their confidence level in the firm’s ability to keep pace with new challenges, only 9% were in the “highly confident” range while 2-1/2 times that number (23%) were “low;” and 68% were “moderate.” (Remember who’s being asked these questions here, folks: The firms’ very leaders.)
  • On the related question of evaluating their partners’ awareness of the new challenges, the results are even stronger: Only 6% high, 43% low.
  • Finally, on the payoff question about their partners’ level of adaptability to change? A measly 1% “high” (1 in 100!) and 52% “low.”

If you’re looking for a recipe for stasis, you can’t do much better than this.

And clients seem to picking up on it, too.

For several years, Altman Weil has been asking law firm leaders how serious they think law firms are about changing their service delivery model to provide greater client value (just cutting rates doesn’t count). Diabolically, they’ve also started asking Chief Legal Officers the same question—their view of law firms’ change efforts on this score. Suffice to say the news is bad and getting worse. On a 0—10 scale (0 = “not at all serious” and 10 = “doing everything they can”), law firms have given themselves a median score of 4.9 or 5.0 for the past three years: right in the middle.

But the client perspective? Not just lower, but declining: from 3.8 to 3.6 to 3.4 from 2013 to 2015. Moreover, if you look at the skew of client responses, 15% give law firms a “0” or a “1,” while the total client votes for 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 combined amounts to? That very same 15%.

By the way, Altman Weil is also kind enough to ask the law firm leaders “why isn’t your firm donig more to change the way it delivers legal services? [select all that apply]” 63%, the #1 response by far, choose “because clients aren’t asking for it.” The rational mind reels. At the very least, one must step back and ask if the law firm respondents are listening to their very own answers. Runner-up answers to this, by the way, include:

  • We’re not feeling enough economic pain to motivate change (46%)
  • Partners resist change (45%), and
  • Our delivery model isn’t broken (30%).

I dare you to find a similarly sized private sector industry where clients have as low an opinion of their providers’ efforts at delivering greater value. This does not strike me as auguring well.

But you came in the door here thinking you were going to read about leadership.

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