Dan DiPietro

A year ago, in writing about how major law firms performed in the first half of 2013, I wondered whether Biglaw might be the proverbial frog in boiling water. I now wonder whether the analogy might still hold, but in a good way: could we be witnessing a quiet boom for Biglaw, happening so gradually that we don’t even realize it’s here?

In the past few weeks, a slew of mega-mergers have made headlines — which will hopefully turn into contributions to law firm coffers. But even if you focus just on the first six months of 2014, excluding the busy months of July and August, there’s good news to report.

Our friends at Citi Private Bank, a leading law firm lender, just released their report on how Biglaw fared in the first half of 2014. What are the key findings?

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Missing: multiple midlevels

Even though there’s significant excess capacity — meaning too many lawyers chasing too little work — I am hearing the concern that there aren’t enough midlevel associates.

Dan DiPietro, chairman of the Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group, offering an explanation as to why he thinks Biglaw firms want to increase headcount in this time of economic stress. In the latest Law Watch Managing Partner Confidence Index Survey, law firm leaders’ overall confidence level was lower than it has been since last year at this time, with expectations for profits and revenues also on the decline. The only area where their confidence rose was in expectations for hiring associates and equity partners.

D.C. is dysfunctional, as pundits constantly complain about. Has the lack of productivity on Capitol Hill expanded to affect the private law firms of Washington?

Perhaps. According to Citi Private Bank’s recent survey of law firm performance, which showed that the first half of 2013 was bad for Biglaw nationally, D.C.-based law firms did even worse than their counterparts in other cities.

Let’s look at the numbers….

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The sky is not falling for the world of large law firms. But could Biglaw be a frog in boiling water? We can’t rule that possibility out just yet.

The latest report on law firm performance, focused on the first six months of this year, shows some signs of weakness. The numbers aren’t awful, but if Biglaw continues to travel down this path, it won’t wind up in a good place….

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I was recently chatting with a young litigation partner about how the year was going for his firm thus far. He confessed it was off to a sluggish start. He was not extremely busy himself, but he said that his colleagues on the transactional side were practically twiddling their thumbs.

He wondered: was this slowness specific to his firm, or was the legal industry in general not exactly going gangbusters? I shared with him my sense, admittedly anecdotal, that 2013 to date has been pretty “meh.”

Now we have actual data on the first quarter. My partner friend should be relieved. Misery loves company….

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It’s an interesting question, right? If you know of a managing partner who could use some medication, please email us or text us (646-820-8477).

What prompted the question on our part? Here, we’ll tell you….

UPDATE (5:30 p.m.): Now with added commentary from Anonymous Partner.

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The legal economy right now is not unlike the economy writ large. People with small or non-existent paychecks are suffering, but those at the top are actually doing just fine for themselves.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it might just be reality. As David Brooks put it in a recent New York Times column, “[t]he meritocracy is overwhelming the liberal project.” He argues that in our current, rapidly changing economy, people who are smart, well-educated, and hardworking just end up doing better and better for themselves — and there are practical limits on how much redistributive policies can “fix” this situation.

Sorry for that digression — back to Biglaw. Let’s take a look at how the rich are getting richer….

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The grass isn’t quite this green in the ‘new normal.’

In a piece from last month, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wondered: Is Growth Over? One could very easily take this question, posed with respect to the broader economy, and apply it to the world of large law firms.

And what would the answer be? According to a client advisory just issued by Citi Private Bank and Hildebrandt Consulting, “Probably.”

Their analysis is gloomy, although guardedly so; we’re not talking about “the sky is falling” pronouncements. Let’s take a look at the specifics….

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* L.A. city council voted in favor of banning pet stores. Because walking your dog contributes to childhood obesitywaitwaitwhatthehell? (Elie here: Pet stores contribute proliferation of puppy mills, and puppy mills are evil. People should only acquire pets from reputable breeders, or by opening their hearts to one of the many loving animals at your local animal shelter.) [LA Times via Overlawyered]

* If marijuana gets legalized, will there be a Green Gold Rush? [Daily Beast]

* A Texas high school won’t let students vote for Homecoming unless they wear an electronic tracking chip around their neck. I didn’t realize Minority Report took place in Texas. [CNET]

* A special Halloween version of scary s**t on the internet you maybe should be afraid of. [IT-Lex]

* A bunch of alternate mottos for legal blogs, ATL included. Ours stars — who else? — the Commentariat. Nice work gang. [Legal Blog Watch]

* After the jump, Lee Pacchia speaks with Dan DiPietro of Citibank, who has a watchlist of the Biglaw firms that may fail in the near future….

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What is the future outlook for Biglaw? The Magic 8 Ball is not optimistic.

Last month, we wrote about a less-than-cheery report from Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group, the largest lender to U.S. law firms. The bottom line of that report for law firms: “With weak demand growth and the continuation of expense growth, it is likely that expenses will continue to grow at a faster pace than revenue, squeezing margins and making it tricky to achieve even low single-digit profit growth.”

As we mentioned in Morning Docket, there’s a new report out from our friends at Citi, and it also sounds pessimistic notes. It concerns the confidence levels of law firm managing partners.

What are the powers-that-be in Biglaw worried about right now? Let’s find out….

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