Steve Pearlstein in Sundays Washington Post has a great piece on how the DC law firm now called Howrey collapsed.
Bottom line, while the firm was highly innovative, for example replacing the traditional second year summer associate wine, sports, and a little legal research agenda with “Howrey Bootcamp,” in the end, because partners had moved to firm for money, when the money slowed, the partners left. Pearlstein concludes:
More troubling, however, is the fact that the industry seems to have learned nothing from such episodes. Reading the legal press and legal blogs, you find the same uncritical acceptance of the wisdom and inevitability of firms becoming larger and more global, the same acceptance of the free-agency model, the same acceptance of a world in which firms are held together by nothing more than a collective determination to increase profit per partner.
It is hardly a coincidence that all of these have come to pass at the same time as an epidemic of job dissatisfaction among law firm partners and associates. The pity is that the remarkable cunning and determination that lawyers now devote to winning clients and winning cases cannot also be applied to turning their firms back into genuine partnerships and their business back into a profession.
All true. But assuming, as is likely, that the corporate law firm spiral is not reversible, the differences between big firm practice and the rest of the legal world will become greater and greater over time. In contract to the corporate law firm, values of continuity, loyalty, and reward from results rather than income really still do characterize much of small firm and community practice, as well as the governmental, nonprofit, court, and legal aid world.
Some have been asking for years whether a single educational system, path and indeed a single profession, serve both kind of practice.
My own view is that there remain large advantages of having one profession, particularly from the relative ease of moving between different kinds of legal jobs, and the status that many lawyers are able to leverage for change.
But we may we getting to the point where the third year of law school should start to look very very different for people who are going on different paths. As more and more of the training of corporate lawyers occurs in the firms, law schools provide less and less of what is needed to those who will not receive an additional subsidized two of three years of highly paid education as young firm lawyers. Nor is it clear that firms (or clients) will be wiling to continue to provide the subsidy. It is largely forgotten that until the 70’s starting law firm salaries were about what new teachers got. Salaries started escalating when student distrust of the political and economic system in the Vietnam War years caused many to turn away from the firms, and the elite law students had to be lured back.
Anyway, the current models do not work, and I for one do not expect the business models of large firms to change, rather I see current cultural changes accelerating.