In response to the attacks on Noam Scheiber‘s article, The Last Days of Big Law, I wrote Let’s not be like the lawyers. In other words: Let’s not attack the example.
For today, I’m going to pull out several points from the article that are worthy of discussion around the water cooler today:
What are we going to do about partners hoarding work and the internal competition?
And the competition isn’t just external. Partners routinely make pitches behind the backs of colleagues with ties to a client. They hoard work for themselves even when it requires the expertise of a fellow partner. They seize credit for business that younger colleagues bring in.
Is a law degree worth the debt? Why are law school churning out so many associates who will never find a job in legal?
The odds are increasingly long that a recent law-school grad will find a job. Five years ago, during a recession, American law schools produced 43,600 graduates and 75 percent had positions as lawyers within nine months. Last year, the numbers were 46,500 and 64 percent. In addition to the emotional toll unemployment exacts, it is often financially ruinous. The average law student graduates $100,000 in debt.
If legal technology is replacing associates, where are we going to find the future partners, and rainmakers?
Many of the tasks they performed until five or ten years ago—like reviewing hundreds of pages of documents—are outsourced to a reserve army of contract attorneys, who toil away at one-third the pay. “All these people kept on going into this empty office,” recalls a former associate at a Washington firm. “No one introduced them. They were on the floor wearing business suits. … It was extremely creepy.” Still, any associate tempted to resent these scabs should consider the following: Legal software is rapidly replacing them, too.
How many $1000/hour attorneys do we need?
But the biggest problem is that there are simply many, many more high-priced lawyers today than there is high-priced legal work.
Are there more layoffs coming?
The crisis in the profession isn’t likely to improve, either. In late June, the New York–based Weil Gotshal, one of the most alabaster of white-shoe firms, announced it was laying off 60 associates, about 7 percent of its total. A few dozen of the firm’s 300 partners will see their pay cut, in many cases substantially. … Almost as disconcerting as the firings was the way the firm’s executive partner, Barry Wolf, explained them. “We believe that this is not just a cycle, but that the supply-demand balance is out of whack across the industry,” he told The New York Times. “If we thought this was a cycle and our business was going to pick up meaningfully next year, we would not be doing this.”
The business model of purchasing legal services has changed. How will this continue to impact the industry? What will happen to those firms that do not adapt?
The overwhelming majority of these still operate according to a business model that assumes, at least implicitly, that clients will insist upon the best legal talent instead of the best bargain for legal talent. That assumption has become rickety. Within the next decade or so, according to one common hypothesis, there will be at most 20 to 25 firms that can operate this way—the firms whose clients have so many billions of dollars riding on their legal work that they can truly spend without limit. The other 200 firms will have to reinvent themselves or disappear.
All of these are great and meaty topics for conversation, and they all come directly from the pre-Mayer Brown discussion in Mr. Scheiber’s article. But you’d never know it from the majority of the posts, tweets and comments out there.
I’m trained to look for the similarities, not the differences. Maybe that’s why the article resonates well with me. Why the attacks? I think it’s that same identification. It makes people uncomfortable. And hence the defensiveness.
I’ll share with you a little secret from inside my firm: We’re talking about all of these issues and more.