Is bigger better?

Big news in the legal community this week is the merger between Webber Wentzel Bowens and Mallinicks which will create a law firm with over 300 lawyers. That is a pretty big law firm and will stand alongside another large, merged firm, Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs which merged a little while ago. It is easy to start speculating on which other major firms will merge and create the next biggest law firm (and to look down on the firms that haven’t managed a merger as somehow deficient) but I do wonder about the value of such mergers.

Bigger isn’t necessarily better in and of itself. Sure a firm of 300 lawyers all over the country can cover a fair amount of ground and there is a pretty broad spectrum of expertise in that firm. That is important if your needs are diverse. Ultimately, though, you will be dealing with one lawyer at a time and that is where the difference comes in. That one person may work in an office building with 299 other lawyers or may be working in a home office out in the ‘burbs. The important question, perhaps the most important question, is whether that one person works well with you and whether you have a good relationship with that person. The chairman of my previous firm, Werksmans, was approached for comment on this new merger and he said “relationships were more important at this stage than size for South African law firms to be world class”. I agree with him completely here.

The size of a firm may be important to you because of the expertise available under one roof, so to speak, or because it massages your ego to say you have a firm of 300 lawyers waiting for your phone call (in reality, you probably have one or two lawyers who do work for you and will add you to their list of 10 clients or so to deal with that week if you spend enough on legal fees) but when it comes down to it, you are really best served by working with a lawyer you trust, you can rely on and who regards you as one of his/her most important clients, regardless of how much you spend in legal fees.

I was asked to assist a vet on a case a little while ago. A friend of his, an advocate, was briefed to conduct the hearing. The advocate didn’t charge for his services but he worked as if he was being paid a million bucks. He really reminded me of an important lesson. If a lawyer takes on a job then the work must be done just as well for a client who is not paying as it must be done for a client who pays high fees. It is difficult to remember this lesson at times, especially when there isn’t as much paying work as there should be, but this is both about integrity, professionalism and an important investment in business development. It is also a work in progress.

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