There is an excellent and deeply provocative op-ed in today’s New York Times about the recent compensation and staffing trends in large firms. The op-ed points out that the recent terminations and partner compensation changes at Weil, Gotshal & Manges are not about a shrinking market. Rather they are about a desire to maximize key partner compensation — with partner compensation already at an average exceeding $2.2 million a year.
Most big firms are now following the leads of their corporate clients, which run businesses with one eye on the current stock price while maximizing quarterly earnings. But that can be an unforgiving world. Weil’s enormous reported profits for 2012 included a downward arrow because they represented an 8 percent drop from 2011, in part because of expensive hires. However unjustified, even a single year of relatively minor decline can create concerns. Cutting costs through layoffs and getting more billable hours out of the survivors has become a typical, businesslike response.
The article goes on to explain the business dynamics, and to bemoan the message to law students, whom, it concludes, have little choice.
My fear is different. The access to justice coalition has long been sustained in part by an alliance between the larger firms and poverty advocates. The “in the middle” private bar is often left out of that equation — and the very limited bar opposition to some innovations has come from those serving other than the very rich.
But, as the large firms are seen more and more as pursuing an income maximization strategy — and at stratospheric levels — at a minimum their advocacy for access for the poor is likely to be seen as less and less legitimate.
The support of the middle income bar for access to justice will therefore become more and more important, and it is now even more critical that we structure innovations that can earn support from a very broad spectrum of the profession.