General Spoiler Alert: You may not want to read this column if you have not yet finished reading “A Storm of Swords” (affiliate link) or finished watching season three of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Care has been taken to eliminate any spoilers, but by definition spoilers are personal, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the books or show.
Imagine a conference room. Filled with lawyers, in this case an Am Law 100 law firm’s D.C.-based bankruptcy practice. Fifteen lawyers in total. Four partners, two senior counsel, and nine associates of various experience levels. All came to the firm four years ago, when the then-nascent mega-firm picked up an entire D.C.-centric firm in a merger. The bankruptcy guys decided to go with the new outfit, choosing to remain with old colleagues and hoping for some exposure to the new mega-firm’s promised synergies. Business has been okay, even as the current year has been a little soft. In their minds, it also would have been nice to have more fellow bankruptcy practitioners in other offices, but despite their relative isolation (in geography and practice area), the group has managed to pick up a big matter or two via referral from other groups. Things are plodding along.
The head of the practice is about to turn the reins of the meeting over to one of the associates — who will be summarizing some recent case law out of Delaware. It is a spring Tuesday, and everyone is eating, drinking, or doing the smartphone stare. All of a sudden, the door swings open. In marches the office managing partner, flanked by the office manager/HR liason, and one of the D.C.-based members of the executive committee — who closes the door and locks it….
Heads turn at their entrance, and some curious glances are exchanged when the door gets locked. Everyone really starts to pay attention when the office managing partner heads to the wall and flips a switch that pulls down the floppy videoconference screen. Within seconds, the firm’s CEO appears on screen — live from headquarters. The mood in the room quickly darkens, as people start to realize what is happening.
The news is devastating and delivered without hesitation. The group is being dissolved, a victim of the firm’s change in direction, or focus on market-leading practices, or some other excuse that sounds good in a press release but terrible to those actually affected by the news. Everyone has until the end of the year, and “can count on the firm’s support” in trying to relocate their practices — but only if people agree to keep quiet about the circumstances of their departure. The firm wants to avoid bad press. In the space of five minutes, mega-firm X has exited the bankruptcy business — at least with its current crew of bankruptcy lawyers. There are no plans to do bankruptcy work again. Exceptions may be made for the right lateral candidates, of course.
The Biglaw version of a “Red Wedding” — even in this age of dissolutions, it’s shocking when it actually occurs. Not unlike the “Red Wedding” on the penultimate episode of this season’s Game of Thrones. In the space of ten minutes or so, long-term alliances were betrayed as nefarious new ones were cemented, and members of the most storied families in the entire land were attacked in an orgy of violence.
Unfortunately, an equivalent scene is more plausible than ever in Biglaw. Perhaps never before have so many in Biglaw lived at the mercy of a noble class — today’s Biglaw nobility, determined primarily by book of business — at the top. When once-staid partnerships devolve into centrally-managed conglomerates, the pace of change can come swiftly. And it has.
Can we compare Biglaw today to Westeros? Sure we can. Idiosyncratic rules? Prestige obsession? Cutthroat competition? Obsession with wealth and power? Obliviousness to outside threats? Yes to all. Make your own comparison between India-based litigation support vendors and the White Walkers. The main point is that Biglaw firms (like the Lannisters, Tyrells, and Starks) get so wrapped up in their own internal battles that sometimes the true threats (like crippling debt, the end of partner loyalty, and encroaching outsiders eager to gorge on Biglaw’s profits) get ignored.
More importantly for all of us in Biglaw is that we need to recognize that we are only as strong as the “noble family” we lead or serve. In today’s Biglaw, the banner you fly is that of your practice group. You want to be a part of a profitable group. And if you aren’t — for whatever reason — there is no room for allegiance if you value your head.
On a more macro-level, you can compare the (damn long and detailed) appendices listing the noble families of Westeros with the “Biglaw Taxonomy” serial by Bruce MacEwen that’s running on this website. Houses and firms, big and small, each a living entity struggling for survival in a brutal world. Some push forward with lengthy lineages and the attendant riches, while others are opportunistic scavengers, taking advantage of any sign of weakness. Have fun figuring out the Biglaw equivalent of the Lannisters, coordinating treachery while wielding power across the land. Or which Biglaw firm mirrors the Baratheons, once in absolute power themselves, and now raging with righteous fury from outside the gates — and willing to embrace dark magic for a chance to return to glory. Do the same with your internal practice groups. Everyone has their place in the race for the PPP-throne.
As fans of the show and books have long understood, in Westeros, no one is truly safe. Titles and strong armor can buy you only time. The same is true in today’s Biglaw, where the titles are cheap and your armor is only as thick as the stack of client bills you are sending out this month. Enjoy the game.
Could a “Red Wedding” happen at your firm? Or is the profession still too genteel for this to become a widespread occurrence? Let me know your thoughts 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.