According to recent reports, the growth rate of specialist and boutique law firms in Australia is increasing. We look at the fresh approach some firms are applying to specialisation and the factors fuelling the expansion of this legal market segment.
New generation boutique firms
In a Law Society of New South Wales article, Wayne Stewart, director of business development and sales training firm Monte Rosa, notes that the term “boutique” should not be mistaken as a euphemism for small.
If anything, a boutique law firm is one that is an expert in a particular area of the law, and – by being specialised – stands out by offering improved service consistency and reduced prices to its clients. Their proliferation therefore affects the future of business for both small and large law firms, full-service or otherwise.
The 2016 Australia: State of the Legal Market report by Melbourne Law School and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor®, describes the growth of specialist firms and notes in addition to the traditional boutique firms that focus on discrete areas of law, more practices are concentrating on particular client types or industry verticals.
Thoroughbred Legal is one firm that offers legal and commercial services to a specialised sector: the thoroughbred horse industry. Its offering is clear: “Practical advice that combines legal and business expertise with a deep knowledge of how the thoroughbred industry works.”
While the firm’s client focus may be narrow, its legal expertise is comprehensive, covering everything from buying and selling a horse to daily workplace and safety issues.
Another new form of specialisation focuses on the wider goals of the firm. Salvos Legal, owned by the Salvation Army, is a self-described “revolutionary legal practice” that operates with a team of legally trained volunteers. All fees go towards the operation of a full-service law firm for disadvantaged and marginalised clients.
Traditional boutique firms have also evolved. Some that specialise in one particular area have maintained a focus on that expertise but broadened their services. Wotton + Kearney, for example, focuses on insurance law. Previously, the firm only worked on contested claims in Australia – now it manages claims across Southeast Asia and the UK.
Boutique firms are well placed to answer market demands
In the current business climate, boutique firms have several advantages over full-service practices. These include:
- Expertise:Lawyers in boutique law firms are specialists, so they can offer expert advice and bring more experience (in a particular area of law) to the table.
- Lower overheads:Being specialised, boutique practices tend to be leaner and save on overheads that aren’t needed.
- Transparency:With less bureaucratic structures, the boutiques can offer the transparency in their operations that today’s clients often demand.
Improved lawyer-client relationships through specialisation
While the prestige of a firm’s name may have worked in the past, clients today increasingly want to connect with their lawyers and advisers in a more open and authentic way. A boutique-style practice can encourage that type of connection, while offering clients high-quality service based on significant accumulated experience in a relevant area.
Jessica Kerr of Sinclair + May works with businesses in the wellness and hospitality industries, including yoga and Pilates studios, organic supermarkets, fitness centres and healthy cafes.
Her specialisation developed as a result of her interest in health as well as market demands: “For close to five years I have shared photos of the food I cook, yoga retreats I go to and organic products I use on my Instagram account. When I launched Sinclair + May, a number of my clients were followers of @thelawyerslunchbox who happened to need legal advice.”
By sharing legal tips and interacting with followers, Sinclair + May has grown through the power of social media and word-of-mouth recommendations. Jessica says she enjoys specialising in an industry aligned with her interests. And clients benefit too.
“My clients know that my interest in their industry is genuine and I have a solid understanding of their business,” she says. “I understand what drives them and I have specialist knowledge about the areas of law they need to know about. I think more than ever that is what clients want. When they are paying for a service, they expect you to know their business.”
By focusing their offerings on a niche and well-defined target audience, boutique law firms can fill the gaps that full-service, generalist practices often gloss over in their search for bigger clients.
But that’s not to say traditional law firms no longer have a place. If anything, the rise of boutique and specialist law firms is a reminder to the larger practices that a strong focus on client service and relationships is the way forward for everyone in this ever-changing legal landscape.