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Consultants are seen as a very mixed bag by a sceptical profession but legal specialists are ranked above generalist advisers, with Hildebrandt cited as best of breed. Claire Ruckin reports

City lawyers have a decidedly jaded view of the contribution of consultants to the legal profession, according to research that should provide a wake-up call to advisory professionals.

The latest Big Question survey of partners at major law firms found 42% of respondents thought the standard and contribution of consultants that specialise in advising law firms to be merely ‘OK’. A further 30% thought they were ‘not very good’, while 6% rated them as ‘poor’. At the other end of the spectrum, 22% of respondents rated legal consultants as either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.

There was a widespread feeling that standards in legal consultancy are very mixed with more than half of respondents agreeing that ‘some are excellent, some are poor’. Nearly one in four partners agreed with the statement ‘consultants’ ideas are superficial and unoriginal’.

The poll also generated a stream of negative comments, with one partner dubbing consultants “a poor substitute for poor management”.

However, Herbert Smith managing partner David Willis commented: “A lot of the ideas get passed from firm to firm and it is easy to be cynical, but there are some very good business people in these organisations.”

Willis said Herbert Smith had used consultants prior to the opening of a new office in Spain, which was launched this month: “Legal consultants can bring insight on a particular matter that a firm would not necessarily have themselves.”

Asked which two consultants they had the most favourable impression of, Hildebrandt was the clear leader, cited by 49% of respondents, ahead of bluechip consultants McKinsey & Company and Bain & Company, which were cited by 42% and 35% respectively.

The other legal consultancy to score strongly was Jomati, the business set up by former Clifford Chance managing partner Tony Williams, which was cited by 30%. Other consultants that respondents were asked to rate were: RSG Consulting, H4, Zeughauser Group and Altman Weil.

Despite the strong ranking for McKinsey and Bain, opinion was sharply divided among the poll of 90 respondents on the contribution of generalist consultants. Partners, on the whole, valued the contribution of generalist consultants that advise companies less than that of specialist legal businesses. Nearly two-thirds of partners (62%) rated generalist consultants’ contribution to law firms as ‘not very good’ or ‘poor’, against 37% for legal consultants.

McKinsey has advised a number of firms in recent years, including Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and White & Case, while Bain advised Norton Rose on a controversial ‘go global’ strategy in the 1990s.

However, some argued that bluechip consultants introduced the wider perspective needed by cross-border law firms.

Linklaters chief global operating officer Simon Thompson said: “Many firms can get value out of a legal-specific consultancy learning how the best firms in the industry operate, but the larger firms really need to differentiate and innovate – learning best practice from other industries/sectors is key to this.”

He added: “Consultants that just specialise in legal can be quite generic in what they can offer. Consultants need a broader commercial experience to bring to the table. Added value can come from a knowledge and understanding of how other types of organisations operate in areas such as product marketing, communications and knowledge management.”

Yet the main criticism of consultants stems not only from relevance but pricing – which can see firms racking up hefty bills from bluechip advisers.

Thompson conceded: “It is expensive, so consultants need to be managed carefully, targeted and used in an area where they can genuinely add value.”

Slaughter and May senior partner Chris Saul concluded: “The best legal consultants can bring a sense of perspective and relativity. They have a broad knowledge of the market.

“Although we have tended not to use them, we do see a reasonable amount of them and they can clearly add value on strategic issues for firms and act as ‘grit in the oyster’ in provoking debate.”

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