It seems to me that large firms are perceived as being a source of more value than their smaller cousins and this is often why larger businesses will prefer to deal with a large firm than a small firm (although this trend is shifting somewhat as boutique firms enter the market as a hybrid of large firm prestige and smaller firm mentality).
If South African lawyers are going to adopt the models being explored in the United States then this is likely to change as large firms become less prominent and much smaller firms become more prevalent and perceived as adding as much or more value as large firms. The Greatest American Lawyer has a great post on this topic which really hits the nail on the head:
What I really see going on around me. What is really becoming clear. What almost seems tangible.
By applying the virtual worker/independent contractor model in legal services, we are doing nothing more than is already going on in the world around us. In many ways, law seems a natural market in which to use technology as a force of change. The fundamental philosophy shift in play here is from an extremely patriarchal and geographically centered base to one where efficiency and raw talent are the only two tests. Conservative nature of law and lawyers would cause one to think that the law would be one of the last places to innovate with technology.
Why not the law? The legal market is ripe for change from both internal and external forces. The thought that everyone hates lawyers, even other lawyers, is one indicator. The reality that many people view lawyer’s right there with used car salesman. The grin that many people get on their face when taking the legal profession to task really says something.
Watch and see what happens. The technology revolution is coming to the law office near you. Business models will evolve quickly and the billable hour will become an ugly word, which people don’t want to speak. The force for change will, surprisingly, not come from the top as much as it will come from the bottom. Great lawyers will give up all the fallacies of partnership; gain complete economy over their talents, ethics and business principles. The physical, cultural, financial and general business culture of the big firm will drive talent away and that talent will realize that they do not need the trappings of a large firm to make a great living changing the way law is practiced. You wait and see. It is starting to happen all around you. I’ve got a dollar in my pocket that says it is so.
This really just reinforces my view that this emphasis on large firms based on the fact that they are large is a relic of a past which dictates that size does matter. No matter the size of the firm, clients deal with one attorney at a time and I don’t believe it really makes a difference whether all those attorneys are under one roof or in different towns. What matters is “efficiency and raw talent”.
Easy to use and readily available technologies make it possible for smaller firms to compete directly with large law firms, but for the perception that large firms are inherently better because of their size. You would also think that large firms are more able to adopt new technologies but this hasn’t been my experience. Like many large businesses, it is difficult to adopt new technologies on the fly because of factors such as cost, culture and buy-in across the board. A small firm can adopt a new technology tomorrow and start using it to improve its own processes dramatically.
If you have your doubts about feasibility of shifting to smaller firms then consider whether it would make a difference if you briefed a firm of 100 lawyers to work with two or three attorneys in that firm or if you brief attorneys who are part of a network which scales according to your needs and is ultimately made up of small or solo law firms. Ok, the network part is something I have just thrown in here because it is an idea bouncing around in my head at the moment but I think you see where I am coming from. Technologies like Skype, email, Basecamp and other collaboration tools make it possible for small firms to come together on projects only to disband when the project is complete. In this way it is possible to form virtual firms that scale according to the requirements of a job and, in the process, introduce a level of flexibility and diversity large firms can’t manage.