France – UK legal market: can the French catch up?
Cover photo Patrick Bignon, founding partner and Richard King, partner, Bignon de Keyser
An interview with Patrick Bignon (PB, based in Paris) and Richard King (RK, based in London), partners of Bignon de Keyser, comparing their respective legal markets on (a) scale (b) internationalisation and (c) regulation – and looking to the future.
PB: The French legal market is more complex and fragmented than the UK, with more boutiques. There are nevertheless well-established large independent firms with institutional brands and strong, collegiate reputations.
RK: The largest UK-based law firms are substantially (up to 7 times) larger in headcount and revenue than the biggest independent French firms. This difference in scale requires a more corporate style of governance in UK legal practices: the role of management dominates the influence of individual partners. But size gives access to deeper resources for investment in growth and new services. This has tended to drive greater consolidation and mergers among UK firms as they scale up to compete.
The largest UK-based law firms are substantially (up to 7 times) larger in headcount and revenue than the biggest independent French firms.Richard King
PB : The UK (and US) firms have become serious competitors in some areas of the French legal market ; the same is not true in reverse. UK law firms have internationalised faster and have more developed global networks. Only a few French firms have multiple offices outside France. Brexit has not impacted this yet, though about the same number of new investment projects into Europe were directed to France and Germany as to the UK in 2020. Previously, the UK dominated this flow of work.
The UK (and US) firms have become serious competitors in some areas of the French legal market ; the same is not true in reverse.Patrick Bignon
RK : In part the international reach of UK firms reflects the spread of English law as a legal system for governing the law of contracts, even between parties who have no relationship to the UK, and also the success of English commercial law as a vehicle for settling international disputes.
PB : Though legal services MDPs now have an established framework in France with the SPE (Société Pluri-Professionnelle d’exercice in French), this has not yet proved a popular vehicle and allows only a limited number of professional disciplines to cooperate.
RK : In the UK, non-lawyers can now own and operate law firms. About 6 law firms are listed on the London Stock Exchange as public companies, and others are financed by private equity investment. This is driving an even closer alignment of legal practice to corporate management and governance. But equally it opens law firms to more capital to support competitive expansion. It requires greater transparency of information about law firm financial performance. And it has brought other providers of legal services such as law companies into direct competition with law firms, particularly in the mid-market.
In the UK, non-lawyers can now own and operate law firms. About 6 law firms are listed on the London Stock Exchange as public companies, and others are financed by private equity investment. This is driving an even closer alignment of legal practice to corporate management and governance.Richard King
PB : There could be more consolidation and alignment between French firms and other independent firms in Europe – we have started to see this already. The war for talent is intensifying and is making firms in France focus on building their brand, to attract and retain the best people and clients.
RK : The pressure on law firms to consolidate, ‘corporatize’ and streamline their operations to sustain profits and support growing investments in digital solutions and human talent will only increase. There may be different outcomes than in France but the pressures are similar.
Patrick Bignon was in charge of the worldwide network of EY Law, the worldwide managing partner of Andersen Legal (and a member of the Board of Andersen Worldwide) and the managing partner of the law firm Archibald Andersen in France.
Richard King was Chief Legal Operations Officer at Herbert Smith Freehills where he led projects to improve service efficiency and innovation. He worked at HSF, Andersen Legal and EY Law on global strategy, merger integration and network development.