Big service, small firm

The November/December 2005 issue of Canadian Lawyer Magazine has an article by Simon Hally about how smaller firms, and even sole practitioners, are better able to compete with larger firms as a result of technology and the availability of legal outsourcing opportunities. While I’m not a believer that anything but very limited legal tasks can be outsourced offshore to places like India, I do think that local outsourcing of certain tasks to locally-admitted lawyers can make sense when extra help is required to perform legal research and certain litigation-related tasks.

As a result of more advanced services now available to today’s small practitioner, a lot of administrative and technical support is no longer required. Professionally hosted Microsoft exchange email services mean that even a sole practitioner can have large firm email support. Advanced telecommunications services available from Bell Canada and other companies for small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) can provide equivalent or better services than that available from a large firm’s telecommunication department. And usually at a lower cost so that the internal department’s overhead does not need to be factored into the disbursement rate being charged for long distance calls.

While a large merger or acquisition transaction may require the services of a large firm, many types of legal files can be handled just as well by smaller firms or sole practitioners. Even in large firms, it is usually the same one or two lawyers that do the bulk of the work on a particular client’s file. In many cases, there isn’t a great deal of value that is gained by having the particular attorney or small group of attorneys working at a larger firm with potentially higher overhead.

That having been said, it may be simpler for clients to go to one firm for all of their legal needs. However, many clients are increasingly realizing that one firm may not have strengths in all areas and are adapting a best-of-breed approach to hiring lawyers. The focus is increasingly shifting to individual attorneys rather than “firms”. So, for example, a particular client may go to one firm for their employment law needs, another for immigration and another for their corporate work. What is important in such an environment is the ability of the various lawyers to work cooperatively with each other for the benefit of the client rather than trying to make the other firms utilized by their client look bad in order to cross-market their other staff.