Professional services firms have been threatened with disruption for a long time. In 2015, Richard and Daniel Susskind foresaw that technology would cause a “steady decline in the need for traditional flesh-and-blood professionals,” while more recently, CB Insights said that “a tectonic disruption is hitting management consulting.”1 Even earlier, Clayton Christensen and colleagues warned, “Although we cannot forecast the exact progress of disruption in the consulting industry, we can say with utter confidence that whatever its pace, some incumbents will be caught by surprise.”2
But things have not played out as predicted. In consulting and law, the established firms are as influential and profitable as ever.3 Many potential disrupters have come along. Some have failed, some have gained strong niche positions, but none has challenged — let alone toppled — the existing order. Most established leaders have used a wide range of strategies and tactics to adapt quickly to the threats.
Get updates on Innovative Strategy
The latest insights on strategy and execution in the workplace, delivered to your inbox once a month.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
As is the case in many well-established industries, professional services markets are dominated by a small, clearly identifiable group at the top and large numbers of lower-tier firms operating in their shadow. Consulting’s giants include McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain; technology-based firms Accenture and Capgemini; and the Big Four accounting firms Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG, and PwC. In law, the top tier includes the five London-based firms informally known as the Magic Circle — Linklaters, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Allen & Overy, and Slaughter and May — along with Kirkland & Ellis, Latham & Watkins, and DLA Piper.
How have these firms been so resilient? Our research, which included interviews with 25 executives and a review of case studies on a dozen would-be disrupters, revealed many factors at work. The one that distinguishes the most effective firms is their capacity to diagnose potential causes of disruption and respond accordingly.
We define industry disruption as an upending of the established order, with incumbents losing out to new competitors.
1. R. Susskind and D. Susskind, “The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts” (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2017); and “Killing Strategy: The Disruption of Management Consultancy,” CB Insights, Oct. 8, 2020, www.cbinsights.com.
2. C.M. Christensen, D. Wang, and D. van Bever, “Consulting on Cusp of Disruption,” Harvard Business Review 91, no. 10 (October 2013): 106-115.
3. Only one law firm among the U.K.’s top 10 by revenue changed from 2010 to 2020, and Vault’s list of the top 10 U.S. law firms has seen two changes during that period. In consulting, the top-10 ranking from Vault has seen two changes from 2010 to 2020, excluding mergers, with McKinsey, Bain, and BCG remaining the top three. In accounting, Vault’s top five firms in 2020 were the same as in 2010.
4. J. Gans, “The Disruption Dilemma” (Boston: MIT Press, 2016).
5. This article does not cover potential risks to business models posed by management consulting firms’ ethical lapses or controversial client engagements.
6. E. Rovit, “Acquisitions by Consulting Companies,” RocketBlocks, April 29, 2020, www.rocketblocks.me.
7. N. Ravindranath, “Microsoft, Harvard Start-Up HourlyNerd Partner to Help Small IT Businesses,” The Washington Post, Dec. 3, 2013, www.washingtonpost.com.
8. J. Costantini, “Axiom Law Redefined: Innovation in Legal Services,” INSEAD case no. 6077 (Fontainebleau, France: INSEAD Publishing, December 2015).
9. “Axiom Global,” ZoomInfo, accessed Feb. 22, 2023, www.zoominfo.com.