BigLaw = A Bloated Behemoth (But there is an alternative!)

As an escapee from the grind of traditional BigLaw, and after reading in American Law Media an article by Roy Strom about the enormous growth in a visionary cost-effective alternative to the BigLaw model – which included a number of quotes from the co-founding partner of my firm, FisherBroyles – Kevin Broyles – it occurred to me to reprise my post of a number of months ago on the subject for those who missed it.

It is ever more relevant now!

Not for nothing is traditional BigLaw known to its unhappy denizens as a law factory.  

And boy — does it have a voracious appetite; it can consume a client’s budget with one large bite!

But as we shall see, the factory is crumbling, as BigLaw grows ever more bloated and less nimble. The rent is increasing, the workers are clamoring for more, it costs more to keep the lights and heat on, and the assembly line cannot be cranked up any more – it’s too old and outdated.

Let’s take a look at the traditional BigLaw model.

To keep profits up, BigLaw partners must pay ever higher associate salaries. In turn, to pay these salaries they force reluctant associates to work on an assembly line that gets faster and faster each year (think Lucy Ricardo on the chocolate assembly line!).  And the output from these associates — who must frequently scrounge for work (i.e., bill ever more hours) is paid for by … give you one guess …


“Myopic senior partner!”

I read a short piece by David Lat in Above The Law which quoted an in-house lawyer (who touted paralegals as cheaper and more productive than associates): “Associates who are two or three years out of law school are lovely people, and their mothers are very proud of them, but they’re not terribly helpful to me.”

Nope, “not terribly helpful” to partners, nor terribly efficient for clients, who must pay bloated salaries to lawyers who train on the client’s dime.

Call it “The Iron Law of BigLaw“:  a mess of contradictions and inefficiency.

  1. More partner profits (which can never, ever be compromised) = more associate billable hours.
  2. More associate billable hours = paying higher associate salaries.
  3. Paying higher associate salaries = associates scrambling for client work to justify the salaries (as clients push back and keep more matters in house), even if it means re-researching, re-doing, revising, and re-working — all paid by the client.
  4. Higher associate salaries = clients paying higher hourly rates.
  5. Clients paying higher hourly rates = disgruntled clients who push back and take work away from BigLaw.
  6. Taking work away from BigLaw = BigLaw charge clients higher rates to sustain its profits.
  7. Clients being forced to pay more for less = clients searching for an alternative.

As Christine Simmons noted in the New York Law Journal fairly recently, as mid-sized law firms are debating “whether to follow the lead of their larger brethren on associate salary increases, they also have to decide if rate increases will foot those bills, potentially eating away at a rate gap that often attracts clients to the smaller firms.”

After BigLaw raised starting salaries to $180,000 this summer (for right-out-of-law-school associates!), some midsize firms in New York “acknowledged they raised associate billing rates to help absorb the increased overhead costs.”  “At one mid-size firm, billing rates for associates and senior counsel will increase, by an average of $15 an hour, to pay for these raises.”

This model is clearly outdated — and clients do not like it.


“BigLaw is so yesterday!”

Rebekah Mintzer wrote in Corporate Counsel, discussing new data from BTI Consulting Group, that “the majority of in-house leaders surveyed—56.5 percent—told BTI that their outside firms are stuck in the past.” She noted that GCs said that too many firms claim to embrace innovations but “[r]ather than embrace change, they tell clients that raising rates and exceeding budget is inevitable. …”

Deloitte recently published a study of future trends in the legal profession and found, among other things, the following:

“The majority of participants had recently taken or were considering a significant review of their legal suppliers. Many more were involved in an informal or on-going process of review.

“Conventional law firms are no longer meeting today’s business needs. The majority (55%) of participants in the study (legal counsel, general counsel – or CEOs and CFOs) have taken or are considering a significant review of their legal suppliers.”

“Purchasers want better and more relevant technologies, to be used and shared on integrated platforms.”

And most significantly:

“52% of in-house legal departments are considering buying legal services from nontraditional law firms.

The client pushback to GargantuLaw

Why this client pushback against BigLaw? Well, anyone with even the slightest prescience could have seen that with the advent of cutting edge technology and communications this was inevitable; contradictions and conflicts are inherent in BigLaw and it was only a matter of time ’til BigLaw met its maker.

BigLaw is an all-consuming GargantuLaw, whose “bloated army hardly marches on an empty stomach.”


“Would Monsieur like a thin wafer?”

The managing partner of the FisherBroyles NYC office, Michael Cone, has said that “A specter is haunting today’s Gargantuan law firms: Meet Law Firm 2.0®, a lean and mean ‘new model’ law firm that may soon come to a jurisdiction near you.”

A “lean and mean” new model? How so?

Lower law firm overhead = lower rates charged to client. As shown below, these rates are logical, predictable and flexible.

The Iron Law is falling apart.

A “21st Century Law Firm” leverages technology to substantially reduce overhead costs and client fees.  This model maximizes efficiency, responsiveness and value, and has identified and eliminated the inefficiencies of the traditional law firm model.  There are no billing quotas because that encourages inefficiency (you know who you are – forced to bill 2,000+ hours/year on matters which hardly warrant it), and conflicts between what the attorney wants and what the client needs.

Caution: Shameless self-promotion coming up!

Cone notes that the “21st Century Law Firm” is a reality – and has been for more than 10 years:

FisherBroyles lawyers are entrepreneurs responsible for their own incomes, but whereas traditional firms’ inefficiencies mean that lawyers take home a meager 30% of the income they generate if they are lucky, FisherBroyles is able to funnel the vast majority of its revenues right back to the partners. This brings all kinds of benefits to lawyers, clients, and society.

“For example, cloud-based lawyers make much more on the dollar so they do not have to find every way possible to bill 1800 hours or more to clients in order to make a decent living. Female lawyers who want to have children can become stay-at-home moms without sacrificing their career aspirations of being a law partner.

“The client pays less for legal services because cloud-based lawyers can charge less and earn more.

“The cloud presents distinct advantages to everyone involved in the legal services industry. But perhaps the most important silver lining for attorneys is that by lowering the cost of legal services, the cloud may postpone the day when they are all replaced by an army of proletarian robots.”

This rationalized model is a definite win-win.

Takeaway: BigLaw is well on the way to becoming extinct.

“Good riddance, big guy!” 



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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]