The Law Firm Pyramid Model

Written by Elizabeth Layeni

January 20, 2021

Law has been historically grounded in structure and tradition, and this has also been the case with a lawyer’s progression through the internal hierarchy of a firm. Traditionally, most law firms are still organized as a pyramid; many junior associates at the bottom of the pyramid, senior associates as middle management,  and a few partners at the top. However, this pyramid structure does not seem able to cope with the rapid changes happening in the legal sector and the evolving needs of the client. 

A typical lawyer begins his career path as an intern or associate in a law firm, and patiently works his way through routine work tasks, then slowly advances towards the promised land of being an equity partner. As he progress, repetitive tasks like draft creation, document reviews, writing briefs, or performing due diligence on contracts make up the majority of his workload, with partners only intervening for complex and/or strategic advisory work. Value is then based entirely on activity (the busier you are, the more efficient you look). This kind of structure incentivises lawyers to focus on short-term revenue goals rather than the long-term health of the firm or even client satisfaction. In a true pyramid model, a lawyer either moves up or moves out if they do not make it to the next level.

Technology enters the group chat…

With technology automating mundane tasks that would traditionally be the reserve of paralegals, the pyramid model is changing. As a result of the digital revolution, it is expected that the pyramid model will evolve into a more rocket-shaped structure with fewer associates per partner. This does not necessarily imply that the number of jobs in a law firm will decrease, but there will however be a change in the law firm’s composition: a small group of associates and a large group of IT and legal analysts. This can be explained by the fact that many of the tasks performed by junior associates will in the future be performed by legal engineers or legal analysts.

The traditional pyramid model no longer serves most clients, nor does it align well with 21st century legal professional except a handful of generally older partners. There is now a drive in creating client/consumer value as well as the realignment of provider and consumer interests, that is, adopting models that reward speed, efficiency and results.

The way to go…

A law firm model that would thrive in this digital age, as well as be able to cope with the rapidly changing needs of clients and the legal industry, is one that is client-centric, collaborative, data driven, tech-enabled, multidisciplinary, capitalized, and a digitally transformed one. Firms that still live by the traditional pyramid model might just die by it. 

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