[Note: I write this obituary for large global law firms with no sense of joy or schadenfreude. Since genealogy is my passion in life, and I know the power of information that can be contained in a well-written death notice, I thought I’d take my turn at trying to summarize what I’ve witnessed over the past few months]
Thursday, February 12, 2009 aka “Black Thursday” or “The Pre-Valentine’s Day Massacre” — The concept of Biglaw – large, global, multi-office, multi-practice law firms, passed away on Thursday, February 12, 2009 in many locations with close to 1,100 legal profession layoffs.
Born in 1879 when Coudert Brothers – founded in New York in 1853 – opened its Paris office, the concept of a group of attorneys operating efficiently for the benefit of clients (and employees) and not just for their owners while providing quality legal services lasted approximately 130 years.
In the mid- to late-20th century, the idea that “economies of scale” and “efficiencies” (and whatever buzzword you care to apply) could be gained by congregating large groups of attorneys – ranging in age from recent twentysomething law school graduates to those who actually may have written the Code of Hammurabi – across multiple worldwide offices had its heyday.
But while riding in that fast car of larger offices, more attorneys, more locations, the warning signs of trying to go too far, too fast went unheeded. As others shouted about the “death of the billable hour” or that “disbursements are simply your overhead costs,” Biglaw proponents continued in their ego and monument building undeterred. Like a sexy, carefree and drunken girl in her date’s convertible just before reality (aka “that telephone pole” or “that other car”) came out of nowhere.
Also along for the ride were too many chiefs and directors who while tasked with efficiently administering day-to-day operations, simply became “yes men” and “yes women” telling partners what they wanted to hear; large marketing departments who failed to see that before you could market a law firm like a corporation, the law firm had to be run like a corporation; self-congratulating partners who stymied sound decision-making in lieu of simply going with something they felt was best; IT departments which suffered through the disasters of choices made based on the latest toy or gadget or program a partner had seen at a trade show or at a colleague’s firm; and too many outsourced employees whose jobs in records, document production, information rsources and other support departments disappeared long, long ago.
Friends, supporters, and detractors recall those crazy days with huge lavish parties around the holidays, the partner and all-attorney retreats with their oh-so-funny skits and other team-building exercises. Those days when per partner profits kept increasing year after year. Those days when it seemed it would never end. But it did.
Biglaw leaves behind thousands of loyal former employees who will be lucky to find similar positions in today’s economy and can look forward to long stints of unemployment or underemployment; empty but elegantly decorated temples to those crazy days when the wiser decision might have been to scale back or to make do; and partners who’d rather hack off entire groups of employees than see their profits descend more than 3% when compared to the year prior.
Biglaw is survived by those who got out of the field long ago; those who managed to build networks and skill sets that could transcend the legal practice and survive in any economic time; those who never took the sweet but soon bitter pill.
In lieu of condolences, well-wishers are simply reminded: to take care of yourself and to examine the important things in life – today, not tomorrow; to try and help your former colleagues as best you can; to offer advice but also offer an ear; to remold yourself and pursue what you really want to do in life, not what you have to do to survive; and to not let this history be repeated, if possible.