If you were to listen to folks on Twitter on Tuesday, it looks as if AmLaw 100 firms are all going belly up any day now. GC’s are bolting for smaller firms that will listen to their individual needs. BigLaw firms are the last of the buggy whip makers and will no longer be needed in an environment that demands a lighter, faster and even virtual law firm. Obviously those 5000+ layoffs and 5% decrease in corporate spend on legal costs will be the death knell for BigLaw. Apparently, BigLaw’s problem is that it is not run like a company and that the Partnership model creates 150 individual bosses that all think they are majority owners in the firm. The coup de grâce is the fact that BigLaw has no community, no culture, no life, no sense of humor… basically BigLaw is a machine that is slow, deaf, expensive and does nothing by suck the souls right out of anyone that has ever gotten within 50 feet of one of its art laden reception areas.
It is a good thing that I have access to my firm’s Records Department so I can start stockpiling boxes to put all my personal belongings into when the firm folds like all of those other BigLaw firms have folded since the recession hit in September of 2008. Oh, wait… have any BigLaw firms collapsed since Heller Erhman or Thelen Reid — both of which were headed south before the economic collapse. As for not behaving like a business, let’s take a look at that. Sure, BigLaw laid off thousands of attorneys and thousands of staff members, but so did most corporations once the economy tanked. The same people that were complaining that BigLaw was bloated and paid their first year associates too much, were some of the same people that started complaining that it was unfair for BigLaw to cut attorneys and staff, reduce associate salaries, and break out of lock-step promotions. If anything, I’d have to say that the current economy woes have caused BigLaw to act more like a business than it ever has. Like it or not, all that trimming of attorneys and staff, and cutting of expenses has resulted in increases in most BigLaw’s profits per partner. In corporate speak, they call that watching the bottom line. Yes, it sucks when that bottom line means you are laid off, or your budget is cut, but that is business… and right now, almost every business has to do some sucky things to make sure it survives this recession.
As for BigLaw firms having ‘culture’ or ‘personality’, most of us that work at these firms understand that we got culture and personality up to our eyeballs. Like a large city, the personalities tend to be segmented by location or groups within the whole, and culminate into a larger personality. New York has a personality; Los Angeles has a personality; Debevoise and Plimpton has a personality; Latham & Watkins has a personality… for God’s sakes, look at Morrison Foerster’s website again, coupled with the fact that they proudly call themselves “MoFo” and tell me that they do not have a personality!! Firms have personality, and even a sense of humor (MoFo’s is pretty apparent.) One recent example is that I mentioned that Bracewell & Giuliani had a “Master of Everything” position listed on its directory. Apparently, that little bit of information has made the rounds among the senior partners at B&G in the form of a string of email jokes with partners asking who this person is, and why he or she is not working for directly for them!
BigLaw has even jumped into the once verboten area of social media by creating Twitter accounts for the firm as a whole, and with individuals and practice groups also jumping in. According to Kevin O’Keefe, the BigLaw blogging universe expanded to nearly half the AmLaw 200 firms blogging, which is an increase of 149% in the past 30 months. Law firms have Facebook fan pages, and are using LinkedIn as a business resource. Granted, they have a long way to go, and some are still pessimistic about how social media tools can actually increase business opportunities, but hey… I bet there are a lot of small to medium sized firms that think the same thing.
I love it just as much as the next person when Above the Law picks on BigLaw firms where partners say dumb things like “if you’re not in the office, you’re not really working.” (I personally like it when ATL links to 3 Geeks and our readership jumps through the roof, too!!) BigLaw is an easy target, and can make itself an even easier target because of the fact that there are just so many partners (“owners”) that the chance of one of them saying something dumb today is astronomically high! At a BigLaw leadership conference, it would be hard to swing a cat without hitting some partner that has said or written something that would make great fodder on Above the Law. It does not mean they are stupid… it mainly means they are human.
BigLaw has its issues… trust me, it has issues. I would have to say that after years (maybe decades) of becoming bloated and slow many firms are finally doing something about it. I have even complained that that BigLaw firms are not doing enough to adjust to a “buyer’s market” and a change in the way they do business. However, I do not think that anyone can honestly say that BigLaw plans to go right back to business as usual once the economy turns around. Those days are gone, and everyone (yes, even BigLaw partners) knows that. It might take some a bit more time to adjust for the new legal economy, but I am betting that most will make the change. There is going to be enough discussion on Alternative Fees and other billing models to keep Toby in blog posts for years. There will still be some BigLaw firms that continue to lay off associates, trim the partnership ranks, reduce incoming first-year associates, and kill practice groups that do not make money… that is just business in a down economy. There will probably be mergers of big firms once the economy picks up again, and we may even see a failure or two of some BigLaw firms if the economy doesn’t turn around in the next 9-12 months. However, I think that there will still be BigLaw firms, and there will be demand for what BigLaw firms do. Therefore, if you think that BigLaw is nothing but buggy whip makers, then I think you are really not seeing the big picture of where BigLaw is heading.