future of Biglaw

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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With this year more than halfway done, let’s look in the rear-view mirror and survey managing partners’ confidence in the legal industry during the second quarter of 2014. Wall Street investors seem generally optimistic, at least based on the state of the stock market (despite today’s turbulence). Are law firm leaders similarly hopeful?

Survey says — well, nothing terribly exciting, but let’s have a look anyway….

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* Professor Ann Althouse’s analysis of today’s Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood arguments before SCOTUS. [Althouse]

* Professor Nelson Tebbe’s take on the proceedings. [Balkinization]

* Finally, a very Jezebel assessment: “Supreme Court Prepares to F**k Up This Birth Control Thing.” [Jezebel]

* “JUDGE TO PORN TROLLS: IP Addresses Aren’t People.” [Instapundit]

* YouTube videos and text messages surface in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. [IT-Lex]

* “Her” was an excellent movie — and it might contain lessons for lawyers and the legal profession, as John Hellerman argues. [Hellerman Baretz]

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, Oliver Goodenough recaps Harvard’s workshop on Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services.

You know that something cutting edge is about to become accepted wisdom when Harvard has a symposium on it. The Program on the Legal Profession at the Harvard Law School held a top-level, day-long workshop on Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services. Speakers included Clay Christensen, Martha Minow, and Richard Suskind, visionaries in innovation theory, progressive legal education, and the legal practice of the future. Folks in attendance straddled law firm partners, start-up entrepreneurs, and legal academics. The meeting provided a punctuation point in our understanding of the great restructuring that is overwhelming law — we don’t necessarily know where it is headed, but denial that significant change is under way is no longer intellectually defensible.

Continue reading at the ATL Career Center…

Partnership: Biglaw’s ultimate brass ring.

Becoming a Biglaw partner does not necessarily mean you’ll live happily ever after. It doesn’t even guarantee financial security. Indeed, some partners end up filing for personal bankruptcy.

But that’s an anomalous case. Partnership at a major law firm might not guarantee you happiness — sometimes you have to leave the partnership to follow your bliss — but it generally brings with it tremendous pay and prestige.

That’s especially true of partnership at the nation’s 10 most prestigious large law firms. Most of them have only a single partnership tier — equity or bust, baby — and sky-high profits.

Who are the new partners at these 10 firms, and what do their selections reveal about Biglaw today?

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Good news: According to the Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group (and its partner, the Hildebrandt Institute), firms are looking at nice, steady profit growth in the coming year. It’s not super, but who can be choosy in the current market? And partially driving this growth is an expected uptick in demand, so that’s good.

Bad news: While the media latched on to the favorable demand projection, the report expects firms to be more profitable because they are finally taking Citi’s advice on how to become more profitable — and that doesn’t bode well for rank-and-file attorneys.

Let’s see what’s in store for 2014….

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This is my first column of 2014, so I’m due to join the ranks of those who make predictions for the coming year.

But my predictions will be slightly different from others, because mine will be based on fact.

In the last months of 2013, I heard that two different law firms had reduced partners’ draws to offset the firms’ poor financial performance. At least one of the firms reduced draws retroactively — announcing near the end of the year that partners’ salaries would be reduced as of January 1, 2013 (which slices partners’ incomes dramatically in the last few months of the year). Both firms shared the pain among all partners — folks suffered in the equity and non-equity ranks alike. (This is a particularly nasty trick to play on income partners: “Here’s your partnership deal: If the firm does better than expected, you’re a mere income partner; of course you will not share the wealth. On the other hand, if the firm performs worse than expected, we’ll permit you to share the pain, and we’ll cut your pay. Here’s the partnership agreement! Sign right here on the dotted line!”)

I’ve now been in-house for four years, and my ear has lifted pretty far from the law-firm ground: If I heard about two law firms suffering from such terribly bad years that they were forced to reduce their budgets as year-end approached, then I’m guessing that many more than two firms suffered this fate. This means that, for many firms, 2013 was not a good year, which leads me to my predictions for 2014 . . . .

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Last week, part 1 of my written interview with Professor William (Bill) Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law was published here. Again, I’d like to thank Professor Henderson for agreeing to this interview and for all the important work he is carrying out. As with my prior interviews, the commentary below Professor Henderson’s answers is mine alone.

AP: What current Biglaw practice do you find most disturbing?

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One of the most important voices in the academic legal community, particularly on the topic of the business of law, and Biglaw in general, is Professor William (Bill) Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. I personally have long admired his work, and I was very pleased when he reached out to me after he had read my column on Biglaw’s “sticky seniors” problem.

At that point, I asked him if he was willing to do a written interview, and he graciously agreed, on the condition that he later have the opportunity to ask me questions. I look forward to doing so, and in the meantime I hope you find his answers to my questions as informative as I did. I’d like to thank Professor Henderson for agreeing to this interview, and for all the important work he is carrying out. As with my prior interviews, the commentary below Professor Henderson’s answers is mine alone.

AP: You got in touch with me regarding my column on Biglaw’s issues with senior partners. What are your thoughts on the issue?

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At a roulette wheel in Vegas, you know the odds. The folks with all their money on red have a less than 50 percent chance of winning (47.37 percent, to get technical). There will be highs and there will be lows, but over the long haul, those poor saps swizzling their comped drinks will come out on the losing end.

On the other hand, you put all your money on black because the guy on your flight told you to. Intellectually, you recognize you have the same odds of pulling out a victory as the overmatched retirees from Kansas City betting on red, but you’re absolutely positive you’re going to win.[1]

Welcome to the positive expectation bias. Rational thought flies out the window as you ignore facts you know (or at least strongly believe) to be true, instead placing blind faith in the proposition that everything’s going to turn out well for you.

Law firm managing partners are expected to be a little more risk-averse compared to other chief executives, but it turns out law firm managing partners are not immune to a little irrational gambling from time to time….

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