Big Law: Is it Good for the Legal System? Is it Good for Society?

People outside the legal profession and even newly minted attorneys have a vague awareness that law firms come in different sizes. Those of us who have been involved in the law for many years know very well that there is a hierarchy—or maybe “pecking order” is the right term—based on the number of attorneys at a firm. What passes for legal practice in a solo firm is almost unrecognizable to someone at a 500-lawyer mega firm…and vice versa.

The rise of the giant law firm began in the early 1980s and was immediately disparaged as an ugly and counterproductive trend. Indeed, “Big Law”—a label appropriated from Big Business—was intended as a term of mockery. The passage of time, however, grants us perspective, so it may be useful to look at how Big Law has fared over the years.

Size Mattersionic-columns

In looking at the qualitative differences between big law firms and their smaller cousins, one advantage of scale immediately stands out. A large firm has sufficient depth of talent that new lawyers can ease into their roles gradually. That’s not possible for new solo attorneys, who are hampered by inexperience from the outset. As Bruce Stachenfeld, managing partner of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP in Manhattan, writes, “It may sound ‘cool’ to hang out your shingle right after law school, but, sadly, you most likely have little or nothing to sell. This is because you aren’t trained.”

By far, however, the bulk of commentary about large law firms has been negative. Among the charges that critics make, these four stand out:

  • Mega firms are overly selective, and that weeds out diversity. Big firms can afford to promise amazing salaries to recruit and retain promising young attorneys. The recruitment process, though, tends to select attorneys similar to those already working at the firm: predominantly white males. And white male associates are more likely to be offered partnerships and take leadership roles in the firm, perpetuating the cycle of exclusion.
  • Mega firms develop unhealthy work cultures. Overwork and high stress levels are the norm at mega firms. This toxic culture means too many lawyers are downright unhappy in their jobs, despite the compensation they receive. The result: extraordinarily high rates of alcoholism and substance abuse, and a suicide rate three to six times the national average.
  • Mega firms have inherent conflicts of interest. Big Law firms have adopted the moral outlook of Big Business: making money is the primary (possibly the sole) motivator for their existence. That’s not surprising, given that a mega firm requires great amounts of money merely to sustain its daily operations. But the focus on profitability—especially profit per partner (PPP), which has become the new metric for success—inevitably clashes with clients’ interests. Indeed, within a large enough firm, it’s no longer surprising to find litigators representing clients whose goals are in direct opposition. Ethical considerations ought to prevent that…but when a firm gets this large, ethics is forced to take a back seat while revenue drives the jalopy.
  • Mega firms wallow in a distorted value system. In the rarefied world of Big Law, clients are rarely people: they are corporations, institutions, political parties, or even governments. The attorney is insulated from considering how a particular case will affect individuals; he has no contact with the client’s employees, investors, retirees, or consumers. His worth within the firm is measured purely by his billable hours. If that’s not enough to purge empathy from the Big Law attorney, the cutthroat environment of his firm will finish the job. Partners are struggling to survive at the same time associates are trying to move into partnership positions. A mutually respectful and supportive culture? Hardly; it’s more of a Hobbesian “war of all against all,” with the winner becoming managing partner.

Is Big Law Sustainable in the 21st Century?

In recent months, many commentators have begun to question whether massive law firms have a future. During the economic downturn of 2008 to 2009 (and the slow recovery afterward), even highly prestigious mega firms began downsizing—something that was previously unthinkable. Even now, with the economy revived, the signs of retrenchment continue. At some firms, associates are being assigned cubicles rather than offices. Others have eliminated such traditional perks as free snacks.

Some see this economizing as a sign that the mega-firm model is no longer viable. That probably overstates the case. There will always be lawyers drawn to the power that comes from working in a large enterprise, and there will continue to be clients who value “bigness” as a sign of quality in their legal representation. Together, these trends guarantee that big law firms will always be able to attract staff and find markets for their services.

At the same time, we must be heartened by new studies that find “the happiest lawyers are those who can make their own choices, who feel well-connected with others, feel competent in their tasks, and have support from their supervisors.” This suggests that there is a bright future for attorneys who deliberately turn away from the Big Law model in favor of solo or small firm practice. The financial rewards may be smaller, but achieving a healthier work-life balance may be more satisfying in the long run.

As for us? We empathize with the day-to-day struggles of all lawyers. Casamo & Associates is pleased to provide court reporting, transcription, deposition, translation, interpretation, and videoconference services to any attorney in the Alexandria and Washington D.C. area; select nationwide and international services are available, too. Use our online scheduler to tell us about your requirements, and we’ll get back to you in short order.

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