Article by Drew Combs for American Lawyer
Despite uncertainty all around them, law firm leaders are optimistic about the year ahead, according to the American Lawyer annual survey.
Leaders of the country's highest-grossing law firms are ready to put the recession behind them and embrace a cheerful narrative—if only the world economy will play along. In The American Lawyer 's 10th annual Law Firm Leaders survey, 75 percent of the 113 participating Am Law 200 managing partners and chairs described themselves as either somewhat or very optimistic with respect to their firms, a slight increase over 73 percent a year ago.
But financial instability in Europe, political and regulatory uncertainty in the United States, and the collapse of debt-laden Dewey & LeBoeuf remind them that the world can be a dangerous place. Seventy-one percent of respondents said they expect the economic recovery in the U.S. to either continue at its current plodding pace or slow down. (Only 29 percent predicted that the recovery would pick up next year.)
The results of this year's survey depict an industry that has moved on from the recession—one that has abandoned the large-scale cost cuts and personnel reductions that became commonplace in 2009 and 2010. But in the absence of a clear upswing in the overall economy (and subsequent increase in demand for high-end legal services), leaders of Am Law 200 firms have sought to maintain profitability increases by relying on small-scale tactics, such as capital calls, deequitizations, and increased use of alternative staffing models.
But despite the challenges, most respondents said they expect their firms to post increases to their bottom line in 2013. Nearly 32 percent expect partner profits to grow at their firm by more than 5 percent, up from 26 percent who said growth would top 5 percent a year ago. Forty-five percent expect profits to increase by 5 percent or less in 2013.
The survey contained 59 questions covering a wide range of topics, including the U.S. and world economies generally, lateral activity, projected hiring by practice area and office, client relations, projected billing rates and profitability levels, discounting, and use of alternate fee structures. Full results are available at americanlawyer.com