The Law Firm Model Is Not A Sexy Topic Law firm models have not drawn much attention. That’s because the partnership model has long been—and remains—dominant. It is predicated on the asymmetrical relationship between law firms and clients. Firms sold one thing: legal expertise. They controlled the supply of legal talent and used self-regulation to prevent other professionals from engaging in what lawyers determined was the “practice of law.” Their insular regulations also prohibited “non-lawyers” from investing in, managing, or creating alternative business models to deliver legal services. Law was whatever lawyers said it was. Legal practice was synonymous with the delivery of legal services. The economic terms of engagement between law firms and clients were dictated by firms. Firms maintained stability and a de facto succession plan by weaning out a talent pool from associates willing to work long hours in the hope of becoming partner. Partners rarely left the firm and generally served out their careers at the firm apart from government stints, judicial appointments or senior in-house positions . The partnership model worked well for firms—especially partners. Then things began to change-- about 40 years ago. The profession remained more collegial than competitive until the early 1980’s when Finley Kumble violated firms’ unwritten “no poach” code and raided high-profile rainmakers from white shoe firms. The “lateral” phenomenon became mainstream later that decade when Steve Brill published the first American Lawyer survey of partner earnings (PPP). Law’s entry into the free agent era caused stress cracks in the partnership model’s foundation. Not only did Brill’s survey expose law firms as the business they had become, but it also enshrined PPP as the firm Holy Grail. The fragility of the partnership model was more fully exposed decades later by the global financial crisis and its aftermath. Businesses engaged in fiscal belt synching that extended to the legal function. Rapid technological advances and globalization created what Tom Frieman dubbed a “flat world.” Disaggregation came to law. Legal practice--tasks requiring differentiated expertise, experience, and skills possessed by some lawyers-- began to narrow. The delivery of legal services—everything else—expanded. Law firms no longer presumptively handled all facets of matters. They confronted a steady migration of high-volume, low value “legal” work in-house and to tech and process-savvy legal providers. This work was the grist for the high-billable hour mill, the driver of the partnership’s pyramidal, leveraged economic model. The partnership model is not vanishing, but its stranglehold on legal delivery has loosened considerably. The days of undifferentiated, “full-service” law firms flourishing are gone. Data confirms the growing separation between a cadre of elite firms and the pack. What’s “elite” in this context? It’s the premium, “bespoke” work only a handful of firms are regularly engaged to perform and the premium fees clients willingly pay for it. Still, even some elite firms are taking steps to diversify. Kirkland, a financial king among firms, is taking on more plaintiff cases. Other firms are entering the managed service space, opening tech incubators, and tapping into litigation finance to achieve more flexible practice capability and new revenue sources.