Are BigLaw(yers) "Born To Run?"

Apologies to the Boss, but BigLaw lawyers were not born to run. . .  they had to be trained – long and hard:

— to run the gauntlet of constant testing, competition, prep classes, more testing, no sleeping, more competition, and admissions folks who at first didn’t believe that you were the captain of the body surfing team since you went to school near the Arctic Circle but after sufficient cash “persuasion” finally became convinced – just to get into a “top” college and law school;

— to try to outrun anxiety, depression, addiction and more cutthroat competition in law school (seeNew Report Shows Depression and Anxiety Are Prevalent At Harvard Law,” in ALM publications and the New York Law Journal, 1/2/20 — “37% screened positive for problem drinking”);

— after being wined, dined and seduced as a summer associate, to run that BigLaw treadmill and run, run, and keep running as the treadmill got faster, faster, faster …


YOU RUN OUT OF THERE!  Or else spend 8, 10 or more exhausting years on the treadmill in an attempt to be the one out of 15 (or more) who get to grab the (maybe) gold ring.

Sounds like it may not be worth it … in the short or long run.

And then what – – –

Well, read this *blog post in which author Mark Cohen, of Legalmosaic, says that:  “This is undoubtedly the last generation for whom the traditional partnership model is the standard.”

Oh no!!!

After a life of running, they’re shutting down the place???

Yep, read on.

Although the post is ostensibly about lateral transfers in BigLaw, it is really about the sustainability and future of the BigLaw model in general. Mark Cohen, in analyzing lateral transfers in BigLaw, says that in this market “profits per partner” is king, and is the usual driver of partners moving laterally. “Law firms now resemble sports franchises whose rosters change regularly,” he notes correctly.

But is this sustainable?

He notes that “most law firm brands are undifferentiated” and that “there’s not much behind a firm brand, especially when partners are so peripatetic.” Continuing, he says that “law firms are as strong as their ability to retain rainmakers and to attract new ones.”

Citing the case of David Boies leaving Cravath, he says that:

“The firm brand is of little moment since client loyalty — and the term is used guardedly — resides with the go-to lawyer, not the firm.” And that “[m]ost large firms — and there are a few salient exceptions — are hollow brands with interchangeable parts.”

So where does that leave BigLaw?

His assessment: “If this is beginning to sound like the last days of Rome, it does to me, too”

BigLaw is in a Darwinian struggle where the rich get richer and everybody else gets bigger, disappears, or – maybe soon – both. The AmLaw 200 is no longer a relevant benchmark; there are about 50 or so firms that are head and shoulders above the others financially. And PPP is king in this market. Is it any wonder, then, that PPP continues to rise even if the means to achieve it is undermining longer-term sustainability?

PPP is no longer the same carrot at the end of equity partners’ long stick dangled before young lawyers. It’s a statistical long shot for any lawyer to win the partnership lottery, and its also unlikely that the next generation will wait their turn to achieve it. The partnership model had a long run, but it is no longer built to last.


He wonders “what should one expect in this free agency era? … Where does it end?”

Well, unsurprisingly, not in a good place.

The partnership model’s focus on PPP is a short-term play in part because equity means a share of annual profits. And with no financial incentive to take the long view – especially among older partners – the “take it while you can” philosophy undermines the firm’s future. This is a key reason younger partners who “get it” are leaving large firms as never before to set up boutiques, go in-house, or pursue other options.

This is undoubtedly the last generation for whom the traditional partnership model is the standard.

He concludes that BigLaw is “for the most part, a collection of individuals with little institutional loyalty for institutions that, equally, offer them no loyalty.”

You knew that.

And he never even mentions all of the other features, and not bugs, about BigLaw’s model (or “OldLaw,” as my partner, Fisherbroyles co-founder, Kevin Broyles, calls it) that makes it, well, not so desirable – as I discussed  in a recent post about that wonderful “Mommy track” at BigLaw, or the inherent sexism and racism, or — you can fill in the rest.

“Top lawyers will always command a premium. But is the additional surcharge for their firm necessary? That will be a rhetorical question when scalable alternatives appear.”

Sounds a lot like he is referring to our firm, FisherBroyles when he describes top lawyers who left BigLaw for a “scalable alternative,” and command a premium.  And no “surcharge” such as expensive and unneeded overhead that you pay for.

(Bruce said it:  “it’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling outta here to win!”)

Need more evidence? Check out an earlier post of mine.

Indeed, I think the conclusion of Mark’s post could be used in a promotional brochure for Fisherbroyles.

*This post was originally published on Bloomberg Big Law.

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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]