As Global Legal Markets Shift, Is the Legal Profession Witnessing the End of an Era?


The global industry is never really static. But we have been witnessing major shifts around the world—changes that shed light on an industry in transition. This week we are publishing The 2022 Global 200, which each year provides the most authoritative picture of the legal industry around the world. Our extensive […]

The global industry is never really static. But we have been witnessing major shifts around the world—changes that shed light on an industry in transition.

This week we are publishing The 2022 Global 200, which each year provides the most authoritative picture of the legal industry around the world. Our extensive report will feature in-depth reporting and analysis, charts with financial metrics for the 200 largest international law firms, and rankings by revenue, profits per equity partner and head count. It also closely examines markets in Asia.

It’s worth a read. The world’s largest 200 law firms have once again surpassed expectations, showing record revenue and profits in the last fiscal year. Gross revenue for The Global 200 totaled $185.6 billion for fiscal year 2021, an increase of 14.7% compared with fiscal year 2020, as high demand and high-dollar deal work drove the industry to dizzying heights. Average profits per equity partner also increased by 15.2% in the past year.

Of course, there are stories behind these stunning numbers and our reporters around the globe share insights into how law firms got there and also how a changing economic and political landscape is likely to impact these law firms going forward. We will begin rolling out the Global 200 report on Tuesday. 

We also will be holding a webinar this Wednesday, Sept. 21, to discuss The Global 200. I hope you can join us. You can register for it here

Meanwhile, news of the week highlights more trends and transformations taking place in the legal industry.

While this week we’ll focus on the 200 largest law firms in the world, last week we looked at the UK Top 50. Our report showed how, despite growing economic and geopolitical headwinds, the U.K.’s largest law firms managed their strongest average revenue increase since before the financial crisis. The increase in profits per equity partner was more modest, however, as firms grappled to keep costs under control amid a rampant pay war for talent. 

Also last week, we learned more about Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s growth strategy in Europe. The firm, it seems, refuses to be rattled by talent wars and economic uncertainty. It is sticking with the course it has plotted in Europe—one that involves hiring teams of lawyers in M&A, white-collar investigations, and litigation—so it can directly compete with top international firms and well-established local firms.

Also in Europe, Quinn Emanuel lawyers are mourning the death of the firm’s Hamburg managing partner, Nadine Herrmann, who passed away after an undisclosed illness at the age of 45. She was chair of the firm’s EU and German competition law practice.

Competition law also reared its head last week with the news that Google and parent company Alphabet lost an appeal against a landmark €4.3 billion antitrust fine issued by the EU. The decision handed competition czar Margrethe Vestager a victory in her aggressive push to enforce antitrust laws.

While we tend to think mostly of the EU when we talk about government bodies that fine Google, Meta (parent company of Facebook and Instagram) and other Big Tech giants for privacy and antitrust violations, others are also cracking down. South Korea last week issued its largest-ever privacy fines to Google and Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook. Google was fined $50 million, and Meta $22 million, for failing to clearly inform users or obtain their consent as they collected information about online activity and used the data for targeted advertising.

Expect to see more of this. Antitrust regulators in Brussels have other investigations underway against Amazon, Apple, Google and Meta. And this year, EU policymakers passed the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act, which could lead to more fines for violating even stricter competition rules and regulations governing internet content.  

Antitrust and data privacy lawyers clearly have their work cut out for them.

Lawyers in Asia also are looking at shifts in the market—both in location and practice area expertise. Baker Botts, for example, which appeared to be abandoning the region entirely after shuttering its Hong Kong office last year and its Beijing office the year before that, has pivoted. Like several other international firms, it is returning to Asia, planning to open an office in Singapore.

And while Chinese companies have all but given up on listing on U.S. stock exchanges as a result of delisting threats due to unresolved auditing agreements between China and the U.S., and because of China’s massive crackdown on data-heavy Chinese companies and their foreign listings, they now appear to have found an alternative. Four have recently debuted on the SIX Swiss Exchange (SIX), Switzerland’s principal stock exchange. And more IPOs on the Swiss exchange are in the pipeline. Global firms have suffered from the listings drought, but Baker McKenzie, Linklaters, Clifford Chance and King & Wood Mallesons have already benefited from the first wave of companies that have listed in Switzerland.

In another shift, this one physical, Baker McKenzie, which recently split with UAE local partner Habib Al Mulla and his firm after he tweeted homophobic comments hostile to same-sex relationships, is now looking to move its Dubai office. It will likely relocate to the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). 

For Latin American plaintiffs in a historical lawsuit brought in the U.S. against Chiquita Brands International for its alleged role in funding paramilitary death squads in Colombia, there was also a shift. A U.S. appellate court last week unanimously reversed a district court summary judgment, reinstating the claims. The law firms representing Chiquita Brands and some of its former employees include Blank Rome, Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, DLA Piper and O’Melveny & Myers.

The U.S. law firm that has been put under the biggest spotlight lately is Jones Day. In his book “Servants of the Damned, New York Times business investigations editor David Enrich pillories the firm for its work on behalf of Donald Trump. Enrich also traces the evolution of Big Law and paints a less than flattering picture of some other big name firms, although none is skewered as much as Jones Day. Enrich also recounts the story behind the founding of International’s sister publication The American Lawyer and the role it played in transforming the way in which law firms in the U.S. operate. You can also read an interview with Enrich here

On a global level, much has been made of late of the trend dubbed “quiet quitting,” which describes quietly disengaging from one’s job. Reporter Habiba Cullen-Jafar examined whether this trend is seeping into Big Law and interviewed lawyers who believe it is. Some are convinced this trend represents the proliferation of a “slackers” mentality among a younger generation, while others say it simply describes the setting of boundaries and leveling out the work-life balance.

Finally, we cannot write a column about shifting legal markets and attitudes without commenting on the death of Queen Elizabeth II. On a practical level, in the U.K. legal world, the Queen’s death meant that the nation’s Queen’s Counsel suddenly became King’s Counsel. On an emotional level, of course, it means so much more. Last week, thousands of people, including lawyers, queued up for hours so they could pass by the Queen’s coffin and bid her farewell. On Monday, the world will turn its attention to her funeral. 

The legal industry is experiencing changes, as it has so often before. But with the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the industry and the world are marking the end of an era. 

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