There is a great line in Spielberg’s Lincoln, when the President’s eldest son, Robert, is trying to persuade his father that his place (in what would be the final days of the Civil War) is in the Union army — and not in a Boston lecture hall. Robert tells his father (whom the movie shows peppering his speech to staff members with anecdotes from his time as a country lawyer) that he himself is not sure whether he wants to even be a lawyer. The President replies that law “is a sturdy profession.”
That’s a great line, and an apt description of what a lifetime of service as a lawyer should be. Lincoln was right, and remains right, particularly when lawyers act professionally — meaning that they do their utmost to address the needs and problems of their clients, prepared at any point to elevate their client’s interests above their own.
I know it is just a movie, and perhaps I am too swayed by sentimentality after watching it. But what is the purpose of observing the towering figures of history if not to learn from their inspired worldviews?
Can we say that today’s Biglaw is an exemplar of a “sturdy profession”? Unfortunately, brutal, rather than sturdy, is a more appropriate adjective….
Let us not mince words: today’s Biglaw is brutal. Top to bottom. From the aging partner witnessing a formerly robust client base slowly wither away, as those clients joyously indulge in the “suicidal pricing” being offered by other firms. Or the younger partner who survived the most rigorous of tournaments to achieve the status, only to find that the next hurdle for advancement is even higher. But the firm will gladly take their capital contribution in the meantime. How about the senior associate or counsel, forever on edge as to whether this will be the year that the firm will find some room for them in the partnership, or cut them loose completely. Or the mid-level associate, the piston in the engine of profitability, denied the chance to develop marketable skills in the service of partners who see the futility in making that investment. And we can not forget those on the bottom end of Biglaw, from junior associates to law students to support staff. To them Biglaw’s brutality has perhaps always been evident. Now, post-Biglaw Black Death, it is just moving up the ladder at speed.
Today’s Biglaw — sturdy for none, brutal for all.
What is propelling this brutality forward, threatening to send the entire Biglaw enterprise careening into irrelevance as a business model? I know that there are a lot of smart people proposing many answers to that question. But perhaps it all boils down to reminding ourselves that we need to make a distinction between the sturdiness of law as a profession, and the fragility of Biglaw as a business model. The world is getting more complicated, and as long as there are legislatures, there will be laws written and amended, whether a multi-thousand page monstrosity like Obamacare or a simple zoning regulation change to encourage use of renewable energy by allowing solar installations on private homes. Add in laws passed by countries around the world, one can appreciate the complex knot of laws implicated when a child in Ningbo gets an iPod for his birthday. Lawyers are more necessary than ever. And no profession is sturdier than one that never lacks for subjects in need of its services.
Back to Biglaw as a business model. For the situation to improve, and for the brutality to abate, there needs to be a return to first principles. Prioritizing the needs of a client over the profitability of the engagement. Returning to the days where a partner’s legacy was as much defined by the lawyers they trained in their stead than the millions in their bank account on retirement. Where a firm’s values were more than just copycat references to partner unity and seamless service. Where firms have the courage to say that there is something distasteful at parading their profitability publicly, while letting go of staff or even their fellow partners. Or that chasing revenue through poaching of laterals is a fool’s game in most instances. And that having ex-lawyers or still-practicing lawyers “managing” what are now complex and extremely challenging businesses is a mistake.
I am convinced that any chance of restoring Biglaw to a sturdy profession lies in the hands of my generation, meaning currently junior and aspiring partners. Assisted by well-meaning individuals of all ages, whether they be Biglaw gadflies (who are most vociferous from outside the gates) or consultants — even competitors will have their say. It seems too late for the generation in charge today. They are not motivated to change, for all the talk of challenges in the Biglaw business model. Too much money, too little technological savvy, and too much of a sense of entitlement to perpetuating the “success” they have found. It is useless to blame them.
All we can do is resolve to try and preserve those things about working in Biglaw that are worth preserving. Like the dedication to quality. The ability to handle the most complex business problems. Treating with respect the responsibility to educate the next generation. Providing pro bono services across the vast spectrum of society’s needs. Collegiality for and to all, partner and foe alike. Reconstruction will come, one partner at a time, resolving to set red lines for behavior that they will not cross — no matter the personal rewards. And is so doing, perpetuating those things that ultimately matter more than artificially inflated profits per partner, or suicidal attempts to preserve market share. Only by returning to Biglaw’s roots and core values will we restore an oak-like sturdiness to our profession. The hour calls for action.
What are you willing to do to make Biglaw’s future a brighter one? Let me know by email or in the comments.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.