The concentration of law firm financial strength narrows as fewer AmLaw 200 law firms can be counted among the fortunate. As Mark A. Cohen argues in his The AmLaw 200 Is Down to 50 – Maybe 20.  What does It Mean?  a fiscal separation among bigger firms has occurred and continues.  Cohen concludes that the

“Law firm disasters are almost always of the man-made variety…. Once a storm is brewing, add the fact that as business organizations go, a law firm is among the most fragile, and you have the climate for a series of catastrophic events.”

            from Decisions That Matter: Tales of Law Firm Leadership in Moments of Consequence

The typical press release announcing a law firm merger extolls the excitement, the opportunity to have one plus one equal three, and the great fit of culture, practices and people.  It’s perfect until it is not.  In fact, by some measures more than half of all law firm mergers fail. When the realization sets in that your law firm merger is a bad one and not the combination of your dreams, what can you do?

Besides whistling past the graveyard, you’ve got to do something.  And while a solution stimulated by panic is not recommended, prompt action is advisable. As action plan options go, the following three options generally are presented and often are considered:


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It can’t be overstated. The legal services business is experiencing dramatic change.  For law firms as institutions, it is obvious because more work than ever before is brought in-house by clients, and alternative service providers are rushing into the competitive landscape.  Besides the increase in competition, there are technical and practice advances that have changed the way law firms do business.  Legal project management, once a novelty, is altering the focus law firms are expected to bring to a task.  Technology in law is evolving so fast that even law firms committed to investing in new tech have a hard time keeping up.  And artificial intelligence is finding its place in the ultimate objective of meeting the legal needs of clients.

With all the industry change, most firms know that settling on the status quo is risky. Still, more than a few firms are slow to change.  Some are overwhelmed by the idea of innovation itself or are worried about the appropriate time and capital to invest in its execution.  Without adequate experience or guidance, a firm can be paralyzed.


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Although the final numbers are not in yet, 2018 has been touted as a good year for law firms.  Based on various reports including the 2019 Citi-Hildebrandt Client Advisory, revenues were up, billing rate increases held, and client demand increased.  These improvements are not shocking as law firm performance has been ascending in recent years.

Just because industry performance this past year was on the whole very good, not all law firms can look back on 2018 with such positive thoughts.  Indeed, the overall industry uptick is pulled along by strong performances among the AmLaw 100, especially the top 25 firms.  Performance among the second AmLaw 100 (or 101 to 200) generally was not as positive. Similarly, firms outside the second 100 did not, as a class, enjoy the kind of robust financial performance logged by the bigger firms.  Specialty firms (obviously focused in the right specialty) were the exception among smaller firms.


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Law firms that lack energy dim their prospects for the future.  Too often law firms pass over the issue of their own vibrancy (whether by a failure of recognition or simple indifference) and plod along without taking corrective action.  A becalmed law firm, especially in these times of legal industry disruption, is flirting with danger.

(As many law firms see their fiscal year close simultaneously with the calendar year-end, the risk of partner departures rise.  The lessons identified in the March 2015 blog Law Firm Departures: A Likely Source of Disputes have not lost their relevance as 2016 closes and 2017 begins.  That blog is reprinted here in its entirely)

Law firm news continues to include reports of record profits for some — small and large alike. But the news is far from all good. The reports of desperate struggles for survival are regular; and far too frequently, the headlines include news of the latest law firm closure.

In the midst of it all, law