The growing importance of the specialist law firm
The house of law has many rooms. Among law firms themselves, there is every category imaginable, from the magic circle and major international firm, down to the smallest “virtual”, one-partner shop – and everything in between. Yet there is one category that receives little attention, despite its growing importance. That is the specialist law firm, sometimes called “boutique”. As the co-founder of Arc Pensions Law, a specialist pensions law firm now celebrating our fifth anniversary and two-time winner of the British Legal Awards’ “Boutique Law Firm of the Year”, I am surprised. I’m surprised by the lack of attention to this segment of the UK law firm market, for sure, and more surprised by why more specialist lawyers don’t consider setting up or joining such a firm, given their many advantages to the traditional “one stop shop”.
When Anna Rogers, former head of Mayer Brown International LLP’s pensions department, and I, former head of Pinsent Masons LLP’s pensions team and latterly the international firm’s senior partner for nearly 10 years, first conceived of Arc Pensions Law, the reasons for establishing a new, dedicated pensions law firm seemed incredibly strong.
First, the ability to focus wholly and exclusively on a single market and dedicate all our efforts to servicing the clients in that market. My previous firm, like many large firms, then operated across ten sectors, eight jurisdictions and multiple service lines (so many, in fact, that different practice areas had to be consolidated into large, rather meaningless ‘conglomerates’ for management purposes). Developing a coherent, focused strategy was all but impossible, given the complexity. What a relief, at Arc, to be able to really understand our market and get deep into the detail of how best to service our clients’ needs!
Second, the simplicity of our operation and the agility that came with that. Rapid decision-making, short chains of command and most of our operational requirements outsourced. Even with two “real” offices, one in London and one in Leeds, it’s still true that, five years on, our longest contractual commitment is the lease for our photocopiers! Much of our operation can be expanded or scaled back very rapidly, according to need. That’s an attribute that has come into its own in this current Pandemic. Adjusting to rapidly fluctuating demand is no longer like trying to turn a super-tanker, but more like pointing a speedboat on a new heading.
And finally, it’s an unexpected pleasure to work alongside people who really understand what we are trying to achieve and the clients we are working for. At Arc, with the exception of our three marvellous PAs, we’re all pensions lawyers. A firm run by pensions lawyers, staffed by pensions lawyers, serving pensions clients. Communication is easy, understanding comes rapidly. The joys of having everyone pulling in the same direction! All our eight partners joined from major City or international law firms, and none regrets the move. As many specialist lawyers will attest, working in large, multi-disciplinary firms, you can feel an awful long way away from management’s thinking, when they seem primarily focused on pursuing international mergers or adding as many countries as they can to their roster of overseas offices. How many specialist partners can honestly say their management team has a deep understanding of what they do?
So, long live the specialist law firm. With around twenty people at Arc, we may be small, but we pride ourselves on being able to service our clients’ needs as well, if not better, than firms fifty times our size. Dedication to a market we understand well, a coherent and clear strategy and unity around that strategy – that’s the Holy Trinity of successful law firm management. It’s no surprise this sub-sector is growing fast and now boasts market leading firms across many specialist areas – IP, tech, employment, private client, tax, planning, litigation, environmental, insurance – the list is long . To me, the only surprise is that more experienced, specialist partners don’t quit their larger multi-disciplinary firms to find greater fulfilment and a more enjoyable life, in a specialist law firm instead.
Read Chris’ article in Legal Practice Management.
The views in this article are intended for general information purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for professional advice. Arc Pensions Law and the author(s) are not responsible for any direct or indirect result arising from any reliance placed on content, including any loss, and exclude liability to the full extent. Always seek appropriate legal advice from a suitably qualified lawyer before taking, or avoiding taking, any action. If you have any questions on the points raised in the above, please do not hesitate to get in touch.