I did not know what to expect. Almost a month had passed since my initial invitation for a senior Biglaw personality to contact me, and someone had. After a bit of back-and-forth regarding confidentiality and logistics, we had arranged to meet. Even though I had intended to script out questions, my natural inclination to wing it took over. I had done some research on my subject (web bio, history of his firm, etc.), but was otherwise unsure of how things were going to go. My subject is not actively practicing anymore (and I would love to hear from an high-level “Insider” currently working in-house or in Biglaw), but he was able to give me both historical perspective and sagacious insight into how Biglaw has become what it is, and what it can do to meet the challenges ahead.
The setting of our meeting turned out to be very apropos of the glimpse into Biglaw history that I was going to receive. The wood paneling, uniformed attendants, and heavy furniture all but sang “elite,” and reflected the long traditions of the institution whose name was on the door. Considering I was meeting with a former leading partner at a white-shoe firm, it seemed an appropriate location. His suggestion, not mine of course. I had been there before, for a firm event back when I was an associate, but the mood this time was different, because the assumption underlying this meeting was that I, as a current Biglaw partner, belonged in some measure to this world. Debatable, but I definitely felt more comfortable than on my previous visit as a guest. I was aware throughout that we were literally sitting in the shadows of many Biglaw offices, and at the same time, that we were mere blocks from the place where my late grandfather (who came to America as a refugee) had made his living.
How did our meeting go?
First off, my conversation with this “Old School Partner” (hereinafter “OSP”) was one of the most rewarding professional, nay adult, conversations I have ever had. And even though decades of professional experience separate us, I feel like we established a bond on a very human level, where potentially awkward circumstances were not enough to prevent us from speaking openly and candidly about the profession we chose, and continue to care about.
Because I went into law, and Biglaw, quite ignorantly, I have tried to make up for it by learning as much as I can about the history and business of Biglaw firms. (Debevoise has a great book on its origins; I remember finishing a lot of it waiting for a deposition at their offices to start.) It is one thing to read, of course, and another to hear about the history firsthand, from an engaged participant to this very day — retired from active practice, to be sure, but with relationships and an engagement with Biglaw issues that far surpass those of most current Biglaw partners by a large measure.
(Full disclosure warrants that I inform you that I have taken steps to prevent disclosure of OSP’s identity, at his request. OSP has reviewed this material prior to its posting. He requests that his comments not be construed, now or in the future, as reflective of anything specific to his current or former firms.)
We found seats in an empty corner and started talking. OSP explained that when he joined his old firm, he was one of the first twenty lawyers, all of whom were in one office. He never imagined that his firm would ever end up in its current state, a major law firm with hundreds of lawyers.
“It was a nice profession, and I made a nice living,” he said, with a hint of gratitude in his voice. I did not ask him to quantify what a “nice living” meant, but I imagine that by the time he originally left his firm after two decades or so to take a general counsel position, he had done well enough to not have needed the income anymore.
When OSP started practicing, young lawyers were given more responsibility, and practiced different kinds of law depending on the firm’s needs. “No one could do more than me” when it came to being a generalist, OSP told me. On the lateral front, there was never a sense that it would be a good idea to merge with or acquire a large group of lawyers from another firm. “Organic growth” was the practice, with the firm expanding to give opportunities for growth to younger partners. Lawyers grew up at the firm and were steeped in its culture. “There were no women or minorities,” OSP told me. It was just a fact, and nothing to apologize for.
OSP himself rose through the ranks of the firm, until he was in senior leadership — a position he stayed in for many years. “I benefited from the growth,” he said (which I took to mean that he really started to enjoy the financial benefits of being a senior partner as his firm grew larger). He eventually left, mostly out of a need for intellectual stimulation and a new challenge, to become the general counsel of a major company. He retains a relationship with the Biglaw shop that is the successor to his former firm. OSP has clearly seen it all over the course of his career — including living through, and guiding his firm through, the changes in legal practice that have given us Biglaw as we know it today.
What came through quite clearly was that in no way was quality or effectiveness compromised in those times, but rather that earlier Biglaw firms were more like “general boutiques” populated by the highest-quality lawyers in terms of education and pedigree. I heard all this and immediately thought how different things are today — not necessarily better, but different.
I like to think I could have been successful in that environment, but the truth is that I would never have gotten the opportunity. And in today’s Biglaw, getting the opportunity is easier, but thriving is much harder. We discussed those issues generally, including my experience having already lateraled, and the likelihood that I would be lateraling again at some point. At some point, OSP continued his narrative, and mentioned the “watershed” moment that in his mind ended the era of the old, single-office, elite firms, ushering in the beginnings of today’s Biglaw….
Finis Part 1.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.