Legal Operations

Enough is Enough: 5 Reasons Why 2023 Will Be Legal’s Tipping Point

We’re entering the ‘shame on me stage,’ or as I prefer to call it, the ‘enough is enough’ era. For years, in-house legal leaders have begrudgingly stomached increasing law firm billing rates, even as they have watched their own budgets ebb and flow according to marketplace volatility (with more ebbing than flowing).

Overbill me once, shame on you. Overbill me twice, shame on me.

We’re entering the ‘shame on me stage,’ or as I prefer to call it, the ‘enough is enough’ era. For years, in-house legal leaders have begrudgingly stomached increasing law firm billing rates, even as they have watched their own budgets ebb and flow according to marketplace volatility (with more ebbing than flowing).

Sure, they’ve complained. As far back as 2008, the former GC of Cisco called law firm billing models “the last vestige of the medieval guild system.”

And they’ve reacted. The largest clients have negotiated rate discounts and alternative fee arrangements, while more progressive in-house leaders have built internal legal departments to rival the breadth and depth of external law firms. The former has led to nominal concessions, while the latter has proven to be its own brand of inefficiency given its fixed costs. It has also proven to be a model that’s difficult, if not impossible, to sustain in a cost-reduction environment.

Yet here we stand again, looking at another year of law firm rate increases. This time, however, feels different. This feels like the first-time in-house leaders are actually ready to reject the old binary ‘staff up or send out (to law firms) paradigm’. This time feels like the first year GCs are not only frustrated enough, but also empowered enough, to let their actions do the talking.

But it’s more than a feeling – it’s backed by data and context. There are five reasons why 2023 will become the year that in-house legal leaders use their leverage to meaningfully transform the traditional legal resourcing model.

  1. Historically large law firm rate increases: According to a Wells Fargo report, 98% of law firm leaders are planning rate increases in 2023. Not only will billing rates continue to rise, but they will do so aggressively. Rates are anticipated to jump between 7-8%, representing the largest increase on record since the report’s inception 15 years ago.
  2. Paying more, but getting less: Law firms, like Cooley, are increasing rates while trimming staff. Addressing the bloat may be nice in theory, but the possibility of accidentally cutting into muscle should be of concern to GCs who are already dissatisfied with law firm response time and attention. Trimming headcount also does nothing to address the fact that outsized associate compensation means that clients are underwriting on-the-job-training for junior lawyers at unjustifiable costs. Increasing rates should correlate to more: More experienced lawyers, more pragmatic counsel, more commercial acumen and more customer orientation. Clients are, instead, paying law firms much more and getting much less in return.
  3. The economic context: It’s not just the historic nature of the actual increases, it’s the indefensibility of the rate hikes in the context of the broader economic environment. Many GCs are now operating in a cost-reduction environment marked by hiring freezes and CEO-mandated budget cuts. In fact, recent statistics suggest in-house legal departments are being forced to cut 2023 budgets by 5-20%. Law firm rate increases are not only out of step with economic forecasts, but they’re also totally out of touch with client pain points. When the law firm becomes part of the GC’s problem, instead of part of their solution to tackle increasing workloads and emerging risks, enough starts to become enough.
  4. The other, empowering, options: Law departments can’t just cut back – they’ve been getting busier and busier. Post-COVID organizational change, evolving labor and employment matters, real estate footprint rationalization, continuing data privacy and cybersecurity issues, business and regulatory risks, and spiraling data volumes are just some of the everyday challenges. Nor can they just hire/retain their way out of their workload, given the budget cuts and efficiency issues mentioned above. Rather than confining their thinking to the either/or of in-house or law firms, GCs have another option: Flexible legal talent. In-house leaders can effectively use flexible legal talent to decrease and/or transition spend from fixed to variable to better navigate economic turbulence. Instead of ‘staffing up or sending out,’ flexible talent can be used to build a virtual bench of ‘on-demand’ talent that combines elite legal expertise with knowledge of in-house issues. This agile layer of the legal function offers a seamless bridge between internal and law firm options, providing needed flexibility for unexpected matters or surges in workload. It improves risk mitigation by matching legal matters to the right legal talent, right when needed. It extends in-house expertise without adding the fixed costs of permanent hires. And, for the enough is enough crowd, it markedly decreases law firm spend by limiting what needs to be sent to a law firm and when. Flexible talent provides clients with approximately 50% savings as compared to law firms, and with better value for every budgeted dollar.
  5. The talent: Flexible talent providers have been around for 20+ years. So why is now the tipping point? First, while technically categorized as Alternative Legal Service Providers (ALSPs), flexible talent is no longer ‘alternative’ to clients. Elite providers have now been effectively utilized by legal departments ranging from growing mid-market innovators to more than half of F100. In other words, flexible talent has a proven track record of success and that thing lawyers love above all else: Precedent. Second, GCs have traditionally turned to law firms because that is where the ‘best’ talent is employed. That’s all changed. We’ve long witnessed lawyers’ desire for a new life in law. It’s a trend that’s only been amplified by pandemic-induced career reflection, remote work, and desire for more work/life balance. This isn’t just an anecdotal observation, the stats bear this out. According to the View from Inside Report, most commercial lawyers (57%) are interested in finding another job, with 14% actively searching now. A significant number of those lawyers (40%) cited an interest in joining a flexible legal talent provider in order to gain more control and autonomy over their careers. What’s more, client data speaks to the quality of agile talent: 80% of Axiom clients rate the flexible lawyers with whom they have worked as equal to or better than lawyers from a law firm. Smart GCs follow the talent, that talent is increasingly making their home with flexible legal providers.

This is not to undermine the value of external counsel or internal teams. Law firms will always have a place in the legal ecosystem for bet-the-company matters. But those matters are rarer than they are commonplace. While many GCs are hiring firms for overflow work or bringing on full-time lawyers to handle emerging specialty needs, GCs aiming to fight budgetary limitations need to know they have options. The right legal resource, when cost mitigation is paramount, is flexible legal talent. By incorporating more flexible lawyers into their resourcing models, GCs can reduce increasingly expensive law firm engagements to those exceptional, high stakes events for which their rates are warranted. But for everything else, enough is enough.

Overbill me once, shame on you. Overbill me twice, shame on me. Overbill me now – when I have a lot more work and a lot less budget – and it’s time for change.

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