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08th Aug 2019

A short history of Australian commercial law

Australia’s legal landscape is changing fast.

Australia’s legal landscape is changing fast. So fast, in fact, that in 15 years it has passed through three distinct phases. We believe we’re on the cusp of a fourth.

Here’s what we mean.

1. The distant past – the noughties

In the beginning, there was the law firm. The massive, generalist commercial law firm. Then there was the client.

The two operated separately and distinctly. One owned the legal knowledge. The other paid for it. One set the fees. The other paid them.

For clients the main point of differentiation between legal services providers was the people. Marketing and business development were personal and involved long lunches or sponsored trips to sporting events.

And that was for the partners.

Lawyers worked hard – very hard. But they knew that one day they would be the ones taking clients to lunch. After all, there were very few law graduates competing for the prize. Competition among legal service providers was low due to high barriers to entry.

Clients had little alternative.

2. The near past – 2010-2014

The GFC strikes. The law firm model starts coming apart at the seams. Clients no longer have the budget to pay for expensive overheads. They become sophisticated consumers of legal services. In-house practices boom.

Welcome to the boutique firm, the global law firm, the alternative legal services provider.

Lawyers are asked to work even harder than before. The path to partnership starts looking shaky. The number of law graduates rises dramatically.

3. The present state of commercial law

The economy stays sluggish. Revenue pressures persist. Clients keep looking for a better way to consume legal services.

In-house teams become higher quality and more specialist. Law firms follow suit. The top-tier boutique is born.

The traditional legal career path from graduate, to lawyer, to partner is questionable. Lawyers demand greater control over their lives.

Companies start using their new found market power. Legal services are unbundled. Skilled lawyers start giving clients what they want. They start working outside the firm model to deliver quality commercial advice.

Dovetail is born.

4. The future: Dovetail

A new era for engaging legal services commences. Its hallmarks are choice and control. Companies get complete control over who does their work and how they pay for it.

Lawyers get control over what work they do and when they do it.

Everyone wins.