Top 10 UK law firms see fees slump in 2009

PARTNERS at the City’s top 10 law firms saw average billing fees fall by almost £1m per partner during the downturn, according to newly published figures.

Average billable fees per partner plunged by £875,000 across the ten largest law firms in the UK, including the elite Magic Circle, said recruitment consultant Ambition.

Last year the largest law firms billed £2.4m per partner, according to the survey, marking a drop from 2008 when the top 10 billed £3.3m per partner.

The fall in fees came after law firms experienced a drop off in banking and City related work as the recession took its toll.

Ambition said increasing demand from clients to provide better value for services and a pressure on cost reduction also contributed to the fall.

As a result, support staff headcount reduced by 14 per cent between 2008 and 2009 as the largest firms scaled back on staff numbers. Similarly, the number of lawyers, excluding partners, was reduced by four per cent during the same period.

“In 2009 there was a very gloomy outlook for non-fee earners within the legal sector,” said Tim Gilbert, UK managing director at Ambition.

Further information from Ambition’s survey shows that in response to falling fees the top ten law firms are looking to employ more business development, marketing and client relationship specialists in a bid to bolster billing levels.

According to the results, vacancies within the business development function in the legal sector have risen 54 per cent during the last 12 months.

“There is an awareness that the legal sector is becoming more of a commoditised market… law firms are realising that they have to employ individuals to improve brand development in an increasingly competitive environment,” said Gilbert.