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Are Law Firms Sustainable? It's The Model That Matters

Mark A. Cohen
Getty: Royalty Free

Law firm sustainability—and more specifically, the future of the partnership model-- is a hotly debated topic. Some pundits suggest partnership firms are dinosaurs on the brink of extinction. They point to a Darwinian marketplace with peripatetic rainmakers; migration of work in-house and to other provider sources; competition from the Big Four and other formidable competitors;  talent migration to other professions, and fewer quality associates game for the partnership gauntlet. Others pundits have a more bullish view. They cite eye-popping profit-per-partner numbers and conclude many firms are doing better than ever. The recent flurry of law firm ancillary service launches is evidence in support of their case that firms are responding to changing client demands.

This article leaves that debate to the self-styled “legal futurists.”

The more important question is: which law firm--or legal service provider-- models will thrive in the digital age? Spoiler alert: client-centric, collaborative, data driven, tech-enabled, multidisciplinary, diverse, agile, constantly improving, scaled, capitalized, and digitally transformed ones.

 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 Friedman 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.

Other Law Firm Models Generate Little Fanfare

 The partnership model has long dominated media coverage of the corporate legal marketplace. That’s not to say other successful models do not exist. Sussman Godfrey and Bartlit Beck for example, pioneered large commercial contingency cases and non-billable fee arrangements. They often collaborated with other entrepreneurial boutiques (the author’s former firm included ) on high-stakes plaintiff commercial matters. These collaborative efforts confirm what for many lawyers remain surprising truths: (1) most big case outcomes can be reliably predicted (even in the pre-data era); (2)  firms can willingly collaborate for            the benefit of clients and firms alike; (3) firms can operate highly efficiently when their model rewards it; (4) the billable hour is not the most profitable fee structure where differentiated talent, process, and technology is deployed; (5) lawyers can operate with the efficiency and financial accountability of private equity when they are trained and incentivized to do so.

Three Variations on The Partnership Model

 FisherBroyles, Axiom, and Clearspire are three pioneering legal providers that launched around the new millennium. Each reimagined the partnership model in a different way. FisherBroyles is a pure-play law firm; Axiom a flexible legal talent management company; and Clearspire a two company model law firm and dedicated legal service provider.

Each of these new-model providers shared a common mission: drive client/customer value by realigning provider and consumer interests. They constructed models that rewarded output-- efficiency and results-- not input--hours billed. Their attorneys worked flexibly and often remotely, not at lavish offices. They liberated lawyers to practice law and freed them from office politics, billing quotas, and other stressors endemic to the traditional partnership structure. They created cultures that celebrated diversity, client-centricity, work-life balance and well-being, collaboration, agile workforces, ongoing professional advancement and restoring joy to legal practice.

Axiom and FisherBroyles  have grown significantly since their launch; each has revenues that would land them in the AmLaw200. Clearspire is gone (it sold its service arm in 2014), but its model remains highly relevant and lives on in Atrium and other new-model legal providers around the world.

FisherBroyles provides the starkest contrast to the traditional law firm partnership model because it is a law firm. How can a full-service firm about to crack the Am Law 200, with approximately 250 highly-experienced lawyers from leading firms, nine-figure annual revenue, and a recently launched London presence in response to growing client demand for its cross-border capabilities fly under the radar? Short answer: its model is very different from the traditional firm partnership.

 The legal establishment has, predictably, been dismissive of firms (and service providers) that do not share its model. FisherBroyles and other new-model firms are often lumped together as “virtual law firms.” This is a vacuous term that could equally apply to the way many traditional firm lawyers work. Rimon, Potomac Law, and a slew of other so-called virtual firms have carved out profitable marketplace niches. FisherBroyles stands alone among them in size, practice depth, geographic presence, longevity, as well as portfolio breadth and depth. It is the only “virtual” firm that has achieved scale.

FisherBroyles  operates as a curated legal marketplace where attorneys—not the firm—set their rates. This includes collaboration with other partners in setting the rate charged when they are called in to assist. The model enables partners to operate as entrepreneurs while drawing from the resources of the firm, notably its curated, deep talent pool.

The firm has a unique economic model where lawyers keep 80% of matters they originate and bill (that figure is reduced when other firm partners collaborate). Partners receive 32% origination credit for work performed exclusively by a colleague(s). The fee is recurring for as long as the client and originating partner remain with the firm. The colleague(s) performing work realize a generous 48% from collected revenue.

The FisherBroyles model is generous for originating and collaborating attorneys alike, far more so than the traditional partnership model. It also blunts origination squabbles that are endemic and corrosive to traditional partnership firms. The FisherBroyles model provides clarity to “origination” and converts it to equity for the originating partner. The firm’s unique model also benefits clients by freeing up lawyers from firm rack rates and allowing them billing flexibility, reducing turnover, promoting firm stability, and creating a collaborative firm culture.  The firm’s non-discretionary compensation model addresses and solves the equal pay issue that is so important to historically underrepresented groups.

The FisherBroyles economic model and culture explains its astonishingly low turnover rate, palpable collegiality, and high job satisfaction ratings. The absence of billable hour and origination quotas produces a more diverse, highly qualified legal talent pool, boosts morale, and facilitates recruitment of top talent seeking alternatives to the traditional partnership model environment. It’s common for FisherBroyles attorneys to recruit, and it doesn’t hurt that they earn a 2%  recurring credit on the recruited partner’s revenue as long as both lawyers remain at the firm. FisherBroyles attorneys, almost all of whom are partners, have no buy-in. The firm has no forced retirement or demotion based upon an arbitrary age limit. This allows clients, the firm, and partners the opportunity to tap into talent that is often prematurely sidelined due to retirement, burnout, or work-life balance considerations.

Broken pyramid. Isolated on white background. 3d Vector illustration. Isometric projection.

If happy cows make better milk—as the California dairy industry commercial suggests—then perhaps the FisherBroyles model makes better lawyers.


 There is nothing inherently wrong with law firms; the problem is the traditional partnership model. It no longer serves most clients. Nor does it align well with most firm lawyers and legal professionals—except a handful of generally older partners. No amount of firm marketing or self-styled “innovation” dollars will fix this. Firms that live by PPP might just die by it.



I am the CEO of Legal Mosaic, a legal business consultancy. I serve as Executive Chairman of the Digital Legal Exchange, a global not-for-profit organization created to

I am the CEO of Legal Mosaic, a legal business consultancy. I serve as Executive Chairman of the Digital Legal Exchange, a global not-for-profit organization created to teach, apply, and scale digital principles to the legal function. I also serve as the Singapore Academy of Law LIFTED Catalyst-in-Residence. I speak around the world, and have held Distinguished Fellow and Distinguished Lecturer appointments at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and Georgetown Law as well as at numerous foreign law schools including IE (Spain), Bucerius (Germany), and the College of Law (Australia). 

The first thirty years of my professional career were spent as a "bet the company" civil trial lawyer--decorated Assistant U.S. Attorney, BigLaw partner, founder/managing partner of a multi-city litigation boutique, outside General Counsel, and federally-appointed Receiver of an international company conducting business across four continents. I pivoted from the representation of clients to 'the business of law' approximately fifteen years ago.

I cofounded and managed Clearspire, a groundbreaking 'two-company model' law firm and service company. The Clearspire model and lessons learned from it are the foundation upon which my current activities are fused with the practice portion of my career. 

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The Perseverance Of Resilient Leadership: Sustaining Impact On The Road To Thrive


A few months ago, we imagined “thriving” as leading our organizations to a better normal after the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet our responsibilities as leaders now are further compounded by concurrent challenges of racial injustices, climate change, and economic uncertainties. Getting to “Thrive” appears more arduous and lengthier than many of us imagined… or hoped for.

The first wave and recurrences of COVID-19 continue to plague many parts of the world. Seventy-six percent of companies and many geographies in our most recent analysis are still in the Respond and Recover phases of the crisis[i]. Even companies and geographies that have entered the Thrive phase realize that we are all in this long journey together, because our prospects are inextricably linked.

The future of each of our organizations, though, is not preordained. As resilient leaders, one of our most critical roles right now is to sustain: to sustain our people, many of whom are experiencing not only fatigue but more stresses than they ever have; to sustain our organizations in continuing to create value for all stakeholders; and to sustain society as it experiences multiple existential threats. But just as important, we must also sustain our own ability to lead so that we can continue to serve over the long journey ahead.

Sustaining our people

Our people are undergoing unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty: workers who have suffered deep personal losses from COVID-19 and/or racial injustices; parents stretching to navigate childcare and major uncertainties over schooling responsibilities while still meeting work commitments; even the loss of basic grandchild-grandparent physical connections. It requires both empathy and courage on our part to lead them forward.

As leaders, we need to empathize with and acknowledge the myriad challenges our people are currently coping with, including feelings of ambiguous loss and toxic stress.

With both ambiguous loss and toxic stress, the better definition of an endpoint and a reduction in uncertainty are important ways we can support our teams. For example, Deloitte has hosted Zoom-based workshops where a cross-section of our people helped to inform return-to-the workplace programs—giving them a greater sense of control. Likewise, sponsoring projects that have a defined endpoint and outcome—where teams can declare that they are “done”—also helps to counter both ambiguous loss and toxic stress.

Additionally, having courageous conversations is at the heart of taking decisive, bold leadership actions, which are even more critical now to sustaining our people. Such conversations enable us to deliver truthful messages and real-time feedback amid the crisis, and require courage:

  • To address difficult situations such as business closures, layoffs, and furloughs rather than ignoring them and hoping they go away
  •  To decide and implement a course of action, even when unpopular
  • To speak the truth about the situation, why each decision was made, and acknowledge the implications

Sustaining our organizations

In the Respond phase of the crisis, most organizations’ leaders found they needed to play defense: keeping their values, their people, their customers, and their business at the forefront. But to thrive in the next normal, we will have to play both defense and offense, working to protect our people and our business, but also taking the longer view. We need to lean into the wind and make contrarian moves now so we can come out of the crisis with momentum and a competitive edge. Many companies will play defense, not offense. Winners will do both[ii].

Crises typically prompt major opportunities such as accelerating innovations, expanding ecosystem relationships, anticipating changing market structures, and creating new business models. Many of us watched silos crumble almost overnight in the rush to respond to COVID-19: Teams became more cross-functional, while ideas, experiences, resources, and expertise were quickly shared in ways that enabled organizations to take more informed, holistic actions. Leaders should consider which of those barriers can be permanently removed.

Sustaining society

Sustaining society requires us as resilient leaders to take an even more active role in influencing social systems and structures for the greater good. Leadership for the greater good requires followership, and followership is engendered by trust.

Within society more broadly, trust is needed now more urgently than ever, particularly amid the uncertainties of social disruption and the changing role of institutions. As we consider the organizational and institutional changes in systems and structures, building trust will be essential to successfully guiding society.

Additionally, influence is one of the most impactful and lasting contributions. Where there is racial or economic injustice, it is often ossified systems and entrenched institutions that perpetuate the unfair status quo. Given each of our organizations’ vast web of relationships—with customers, vendors, ecosystem partners, governments, communities—how do we connect and leverage the full potential of these networks to reform social systems and structures?

Sustaining our ability to lead

We owe it to our people, our organizations, and society to be personally fit in mind, body, and purpose to serve them over the long haul. Facing what may be the most extraordinary leadership challenge in our lifetimes, the risk is that we will cross the depletion point before we recognize it. We must not only sustain others—we must sustain ourselves.

None of us know how long the COVID-19 crisis will last or the path the virus will take. Likewise, the major disruptions stemming from racial injustices, social inequality, climate change, and economic stress may further lengthen the path to a “better” normal. As CEOs, we are called upon to sustain through the crisis.

These sustaining responsibilities are akin to a stone dropped in a pond: The stone drops deep into the water, sustaining our ability to lead by looking inward; the ripples reach out to sustain our employees by walking alongside them, our organizations by courageously refining the strategy and playing offense, and society by investing in trust to make positive social change in institutions and systems.

To learn more about what it takes to be a resilient leader on the road to Thrive, please click here.

Deloitte Global CEO

Punit is in his 33rd year with Deloitte and became CEO of Deloitte Global in June 2015. Deloitte operates in more than 150 countries, with…

Deloitte Global CEO

Punit is in his 33rd year with Deloitte and became CEO of Deloitte Global in June 2015. Deloitte operates in more than 150 countries, with approximately 300,000 professionals. Punit is also a member of the Deloitte Global Board of Directors.

As Deloitte Global CEO, Punit set in motion a global strategy to achieve undisputed leadership in professional services. In his first term, he led efforts that resulted in double-digit aggregate revenue growth globally, with Deloitte becoming the largest of the professional services organizations. Currently Deloitte is recognized as the strongest and most valuable commercial services brand. Also, during his tenure, Deloitte advanced audit quality through significant investments and focus.

As a tangible expression of Deloitte’s commitment to its purpose of making an impact that matters, Punit launched Deloitte’s signature corporate responsibility program, WorldClass, to empower 50 million people to succeed in a rapidly changing global economy. Punit is also committed to advancing diversity and inclusion at Deloitte, including through measurable actions toward gender balance across Deloitte and within its leadership ranks.

In June 2019, he started serving his second elected term.

Punit has held several leadership roles within Deloitte, including serving as the chairman of Deloitte LLP (US) from 2011-2015 and before that, as CEO of Deloitte Consulting LLP (US). During his tenure as CEO of Deloitte Consulting, the practice experienced tremendous growth despite an ongoing recession, helping it become one of the largest consulting organizations according to leading analysts’ rankings.

Outside of Deloitte, Punit is a member of The Business Roundtable, The International Business Council of the World Economic Forum, and serves as the member of several not for profit boards including at the United Way Worldwide (chairman) and the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum (vice chairman). He was named an honoree to the 2012, 2013 and 2014 National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) “Directorship 100.”

Punit was born and raised in India. He moved to the United States after receiving a Rotary Foundation Scholarship to Willamette University. He has served on the board of trustees of Willamette University and was named among the 100 most influential business leaders who have graduated from schools accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International. In the spring of 2019, Willamette University conferred upon Punit an honorary doctorate. He is married and has a son.