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As Big Law Floods Regional Markets, Will Local Firms Sink or Swim?

[caption id="attachment_17205" align="alignnone" width="620"] Image: Shutterstock.com[/caption] Large U.S. law firms have been expanding their geographic footprints wildly in the last 17 years, a new report shows, with major implications for regional and local law firms. The 250 largest law firms by head count (NLJ 250) added more than 1,000 U.S. offices between 2001 and 2017, a recently released study by ALM Intelligence found, making certain legal markets in the country much more crowded. For many local firms in those markets, lower rates and specialization have been the key to surviving the increased competition. "For those general practice [law firms], it’s going to be important that they focus on developing what their niche is," said consultant Jill Huse, of Society 54 based in Charlotte. "General practices aren’t as valuable anymore. You need to think about where you can specialize, where you can differentiate." According to the ALM Intelligence report, titled "Barbarians at the Gate," office openings have been especially frequent in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Houston—each of those cities has seen more than 40 market entries since 2001. Houston, Denver, Austin and San Diego, meanwhile, have each seen the number of law firms present there more than double. The report also highlighted Boston, Charlotte, New York and Florida as important expansion destinations. That poses a challenge for incumbent firms in those locations, which have found themselves in greater competition not just for work, but also for talent. "Many of the cities which have seen the most market entries have also seen the largest number of lateral partner moves," the report said. Legal industry watchers said that doesn't necessarily spell doom for local firms, but they do have to adapt. Pittsburgh legal recruiter Valerie Esposito, of McAnney, Esposito & Kraybill Associates, said changes in these legal markets have more to do with client needs than the law firms themselves. While Pittsburgh wasn't highlighted in the report, in recent years it has been an area of interest for several out-of-town firms seeking geographic expansion, including Philadelphia-based firms. While some smaller law firms have been absorbed, Esposito said, the number of local and regional firms has not significantly diminished. "For those clients who need lawyers with a specific type or heightened level of expertise or national and/or global office locations, a large firm with a higher rate structure is the right choice, and often a necessity," Esposito said in an email. "On the other hand, there are many clients whose needs do not require a certain expertise or geographic legal presence, and those clients have more options, often directing their work to local/regional law firms with lower, more flexible rates." As a result, she said, midsize firms have had the opportunity to "flourish," increasing in size and client base. In Charlotte, a number of large regional firms were acquired by larger market entrants, said Huse, who previously worked as an in-house law firm marketing professional. According to ALM Intelligence, the number of NLJ 250 law firms with a Charlotte office has more than doubled since 2001. But the local firms that stayed independent were able to use their rates as a point of competition, Huse said. "Our rates are much different than the New York law firms," Huse said. "It all boils down to those rates and relationships." To maintain the relationships, she said, firms must "take the pulse of the market" and figure out what niche client need they can fill. Jeff Coburn, a law firm consultant based in Boston, agreed that specialty firms have been able to survive the impact of large firms expanding geographically. But he argued there's a place for full-service midsize firms too. They handle the "regular" client needs that Big Law is less likely to offer businesses in secondary markets—like smaller transactions, routine litigation, labor and employment matters, mid-market real estate, trusts and estate work and family law. "Where there has been an impact is with the upper midsize and large Boston 'corporate' firms ... in the 250 to 500 lawyer range, which no longer get most of the bigger deals and cases that used to be their big bread-winners," Coburn said in an email. "A lot of the big high-end and 'bet-the-company' work now goes to mega-firm entrants." According to ALM Intelligence, Boston saw 26 market entries from 2001 to 2017. Also during that time, two of the city's leading law firms went into bankruptcy, and six of the seven firms with more than 150 lawyers in Boston saw their local head count decline. But shrinking local head count does not always mean financial declines for local firms, the report said. Of the 38 Am Law 200 firms with more than 80 percent of their lawyers in one state, well over half have seen head count declines in their home market since 2007. Of that group, 78 percent saw growth in profits per equity partner. For more business of law coverage exclusively geared toward midsize firms, sign up for a free trial of ALM’s new weekly newsletter, The Mid-Market Report.