With so many large firms moving towards a "one stop shopping model," what can a small firm r solo with a more specialized focus do to compete? You could try to become a jack of all trades, but in expanding your capabilities, you may compromise quality. Or, you could take the approach of the Birmingham, AL law firms described in this Business Journal story (9/25/06) and join forces to compete without formally merging.
I have been thinking along these lines for a while now for various reasons. On the one hand it becomes possible to focus on specific areas of the law and deepen a competency in those areas and still be in a position to service a client’s diverse needs. This ability is one of the reasons clients approach larger firms – they have a spread of expertise under one roof. Another reason is related to this first one. A network of small to medium sized firms can become a virtual firm that could surpass any local large firm in terms of the spread of expertise, geographical area and even price. Such a network could effectively service clients’ growing needs in virtually every area of the law and scale continuously to meet clients’ growing needs. It could become a viable alternative to large law firms.
One of the challenges is ensuring that member firms provide a certain level of service or at least meet a minimum level of service and charge rates that are more affordable. There are few things worse than referring a client to a colleague only to discover that the client has been let down. On the other hand, there are similar risks when approaching a large firm. There will always been attorneys in those large firms who provide unsatisfactory service, whether it be on occasion or continually.
I believe that this model is a good one. I must point out that it is not completely new to South African law firms. Many of the larger firms are members of national and international networks of law firms. The difference with the network I am contemplating is that the network becomes more of a virtual firm, almost like a federation of law firms. Of course some may argue that this is how existing networks operate. That may be. I still think this sort of network could provide a great alternative to clients who can’t afford or don’t wish to deal with the larger firms.