As the now infamous article, The Last Days of Big Law, from The New Republic was making the rounds on Monday, I got to thinking about just how dark the legal literature has become over the past year and its prediction of a business model on the verge of collapse.
“Doomed is the New Black” when reporting about how large law firms are doing. It definitely makes for interesting reading, but are all of these doom and gloom articles really saying anything new, or are the rehashing old arguments that have been around at least since the 1980’s on how large firms will eventually eat themselves and collapse under their own weight? Are the writers of these articles actually weighing the evidence and making a clear argument of why firms are specifically going to fail, or are they simply attempting to “one-up” the previous author of a “Why BigLaw Is Bound To Fail” article?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good story of how awful the BigLaw life is just as much as the next person. When we have a chance, we discuss it here on 3 Geeks, too. (Preferably in verse) After all, the more dark and disturbing the image, the more readers we seemed to get that day. It is a definite tactic. But there are times when you read something that falls into that “too good (or bad) to be true” category and you have to call “BS”. I think that Slate author, Mark Obbie, yelled “BS” on the New Republic article in his The Fascinating Vampire Squids of Law article he posted this morning. Unfortunately, this type of article that points out that, while BigLaw’s business model is still highly flawed, it is still chugging along (profitably at that!), just doesn’t have the sex appeal that the “BigLaw is Doomed, Doomed, I Tell You!!” articles. Don’t believe me… scroll down to the comments and see how everyone is saying Obbie’s interpretation is wrong and that BigLaw is collapsing any day now.
- Is BigLaw flawed? Yes.
- Is BigLaw’s current business model out of sync with today’s economy and client expectations? Yes.
- Will there be more BigLaw collapses in the next year? Maybe, but probably not.
- Will BigLaw Profits Per Partner increase this year in most firms? Probably.
- Are Clients frustrated at BigLaw? Yes/Kinda/Maybe (It’s a lot like Congress… we hate Congress, but we still go back to the old standby during the election.)
I am in no way defending BigLaw. There is a strong need for some of the business methods to change, and change quickly. Having alternatives to the Billable Hour (when appropriate) is something we promote almost on a daily basis. Project Management, streamlining processes, and better communications with Clients is something that is severely lacking in the industry. BigLaw is glacially slow in adopting these processes, and is way too focused on their PPP rankings. However, as much as you may not like to admit it, firms tend to work their way out of the situations that many of us think will cause them to collapse. Is it luck? Is it skill? Is it timing? Who knows. Somehow we put firms on a Deathwatch, and it just rarely ever comes to fruition.
I think that my fellow geek, Toby Brown, has his finger on why it is that firms aren’t collapsing left and right. In his Death by a Thousand Cuts post, Brown points out that most firms are extremely conservative with cash (since 2008); firms are like sheep that move with the herd rather than attempt to become innovative, and; firms will be quicker to right-size and shrink in attorney ranks than they were in the past. If pressed, I think most Partners will admit that they never thought they’d make the kind of money that are currently making when the left law school. There is still greed in the industry, but greed at the expense of causing a firm to collapse isn’t as strong as it once was.
When markets flatten, firms will take actions to ride out the wave. Some firms will grow, some will shrink, some will merge, and, over time, some will probably fail. Twenty years from now, we will probably still see articles come out each year claiming that BigLaw is too big and will collapse under its own weight, and the cycle will continue.
[Note: After consulting with my editor*, Jason Wilson, I decided to change the title from “BigLaw is Doomed!! Doomed, I Tell You!!” (Still…) to the title of the Meme]
*he isn’t really my editor… my posts would be much better if he actually were.