There are only so many times you can say this is an “oh shit” moment before the novelty starts to wear off, and when it comes to The Big Four, I suspect there will be many more of those moments to come. Yesterday (24 September) PwC announced that it has agreed an alliance with US immigration specialist Fragomen, in what Legal Week’s deputy editor Ben Wheway rightly referred to as “one of the most significant examples to date of the Big Four joining forces with a law firm.”
Just as a quick aside, it’s ironic that the announcement came on the same day that we posted ‘Labour Party piles further pressure on the Big Four with break plan’, referring to the growing pressure among politicians in the UK to break up what they refer to as a ‘cosy cartel’. PwC is clearly quaking in its boots. One legal tech vendor observed “they’re a verein, there’s nothing to break up.”
The alliance with Fragomen, which has more than 50 offices across 25 countries, allows PwC to grow its legal services offering in the US and follows the alliance between Deloitte and US immigration firm Berry Appleman & Leiden.
It also follows PwC’s launch last year of Washington DC firm ILC Legal, which doesn’t advise on domestic law but advises American companies on their operations abroad. PwC has long made its intentions for its legal practice clear, having in 2016 taken advantage of its multi-disciplinary practice licence by absorbing its legal arm within the core LLP.
A statement from PwC yesterday about the Fragomen alliance said: “Cross-border employee mobility is developing dramatically with frequent business travel replacing traditional, long-term assignments and relocations. In addition, the geopolitical landscape makes immigration increasingly challenging. This is creating new compliance challenges for organisations as governments begin to track tax and immigration requirements on a more integrated basis.”
In plain English, that means immigration is big business, or, as Dan Packel from The American Lawyer puts it more eloquently: “Facilitating global mobility is becoming an increasingly important business offering for these massive companies, and immigration is a key component.” Like he said.
The market will now be looking for similar announcements from KPMG and EY. EY, by the way, generated our first ‘oh shit’ comment in August when it bought Riverview Law to support the expansion of legal services globally.
Riverview founder Karl Chapman didn’t sell AI-backed automation solution Kim Technologies as part of the deal, but EY has a long-term license agreement with Kim. The ambition is to automate routine legal activity.
And here is how it all comes down to tech. PwC, which generated £3.8bn in 2017-8, has long put tech first in its client offering and if it can be automated, it is.
We are in an age where everything is online from shopping to travel and if the Big Four can offer Amazon why the hell would you go to the shops? You just have to look at the retail sector for verification of that.
Law firms, many of which still aren’t even on top of what their processes are, let alone how to automate them, will quickly find that in areas where they compete with the Big Four, they will be slower and more expensive. In further commentary, we’ll highlight examples of corporates that have switched their business to the accounting giants for this reason.
Firms are congratulating themselves daily for their early forays into tech but here is the thing. If you thought you still had loads of time to play with, the increasing frequency of Big Four announcements should demonstrate – you don’t.