Decades ago, larger firms started joining law firm networks that have addressed these concerns. The first of those, the American Law Firm Association (currently called ALFA International), was created in 1980. The largest global law firm alliance, Lex Mundi, was started a few years later and now has nearly 21,000 lawyers in 560 offices representing 160 countries.
There are now more than 200 such networks, and more than a quarter million lawyers are members. Some are global general firm alliances comprising members across jurisdictions banding together to offer one-stop services in competition with the legal megafirms and the Big Four accounting firms. Others focus on a particular region of the world or just a single country. Still others focus on a single practice area. Some alliances offer geographic exclusivity to member firms while others accept multiple firms in an area. And some combine disciplines like accounting and law.
One thing that’s changed over the years is the availability of these networks to smaller and midsized firms. Joining an alliance can help lawyers remain independent and avoid the pressure to join a larger firm. Some alliances themselves are specifically aimed at small and midsized firms (such as MSI Global Alliance or Alliott Group).
My own law firm is a good example of a small practice that’s greatly benefited from our membership in two alliances. We’re a boutique immigration law firm representing clients around the U.S. from a base in Memphis, Tennessee.
Our 11 immigration lawyers make us larger than most immigration practices—both boutiques and immigration groups in general practice firms. And we’ve been successful in building a strong brand over 25 years. But there are a few firms that are significantly larger than ours, and they’ve done a good job leveraging their size to gain a marketing advantage in the immigration space. Having many dozens of lawyers gives clients confidence in their capability. They’ve also got a lot more money for marketing and have in-house capabilities that are unavailable to their smaller competitors.
We’ve joined two networks to help level that playing field. The first, Visalaw International (VLI), was one we co-created more than 15 years ago and now comprises 25 immigration law firms, each in a different country. Prospective member law firms are invited in usually on the basis of existing member firms’ long-standing experience working with them. Trust is at the heart of the alliance, and if member firms can’t deliver a consistent high-quality legal product that includes excellent service, then they cannot stay. VLI has put on a number of in-person conferences for clients, and its members have produced a book published by Thomson Reuters. And because there is just one firm in each country, there’s a very tangible benefit in terms of referrals to being a member. We each benefit from the referral work that comes from our fellow members, and we can offer clients global immigration capabilities.
The Alliance for Business Immigration Lawyers (ABIL) is an additional network we joined about five years ago. It has a few key differences from VLI as well as some similarities. ABIL is made up of 20 U.S. immigration law firms that are considered some of the premier practices in the U.S. It’s a who’s who of the nation’s best immigration law firms and is extremely selective in terms of who is invited to join. It also has a global component with member firms in dozens of countries (sometimes more than one from the same country).
For us, the key benefit of ABIL membership goes beyond marketing. Lawyers from member firms are in constant communication. They have a robust listserv to tap into the collective experience of many of the country’s top immigration lawyers. They meet in person several times a year and compare very candid, in-depth management experience as well as insider knowledge of what’s happening substantively in the field. Member firms also jointly contribute to a weekly client e-newsletter that’s distributed to clients. And members regularly put on webinars on bleeding-edge immigration law issues that are invaluable in these turbulent times.
What should you consider when looking at joining a law firm network? Here are 12 factors:
- What are the costs (initiation, annual dues, extra fees for additional services)?
- Are the member firms similar to yours in terms of size, specialty, etc.?
- What does the network do to foster a strong group culture?
- How much vetting goes in to selecting firms for membership? How does that vetting happen?
- Are members satisfied with the value they get from membership?
- If you’re looking to be able to offer your clients one-stop shopping, does the alliance have a broad enough membership to meet that need?
- What type of marketing does the network do, and what can member firms tap (use of logo, access to content that can be republished, publicizing member firms on the alliance’s website and social media accounts, etc.)?
- Are there performance metrics such as tracking referrals between member firms?
- How much interaction is there among member firms? In-person meetings, social media channels, listservs, etc.?
- Does the network have a brand that clients will find impressive?
- Does the network provide support to member firms in addition to the marketing and referral benefits? For example, some networks offer buying consortia to help member firms save money. Others provide management programming to help members develop best practices.
- What does the network do about firms that aren’t performing (not referring work to other members, not meeting performance standards, etc.)?
If you find an alliance with the right fit, you may just get to enjoy the best of both worlds—the independence that comes with being in a smaller practice and the capabilities of being part of a much larger organization.