As we at Hanover Legal enter this new year and look back on BigLaw in 2008, we are reminded of the bibical tale of Lot’s wife glancing towards Sodom and turning to salt. So in the hope of avoiding a similar fate, we’ll keep our retrospective analysis brief.
2008 saw four AmLaw 200 firms dissolve, namely Heller, Thelen, Thacher Proffitt and Dreier. Of the remaining 196 firms, the vast majority have laid off significant numbers of attorneys and staff in order to minimize expeditures and to stay afloat in the midst of the current economic and political tsunamis (see “The Layoff List” at http://www.law.com/jsp/tal/PubArticleTAL.jsp?id=1202425647706#bal). In the worst BigLaw cases, name partners have been accused and convicted of criminal behavior (see “Milberg, Dreier and the Shanda of it All” at http://hanoverlegal.com/2008/12/milberg-dreier-and-the-shanda.html). In other cases, firms were severely mismanaged, motivated by unattainable goals reminscent of the irrational exuberance that defined the dot-com era (see “Big SF Law: Heller, Thelen — Next?” at http://hanoverlegal.com/blog/).
More generally, in their quests to summit the AmLaw revenue and profitability charts, BigLaw firms have competed for offers to service the financiers who invented and sold bogus financial instruments to unwitting investors worldwide, worked their associates to squeeze as many billable hours from them as possible, and perpetuated underclasses of lawyers while facilitating sweatshop-like conditions for “temporary attorneys” engaged in mind-numbing document reviews. Cadwalader may have begun to soften its image by thinking twice before threatening to excommunicate partners with under $5 million in business, but Milberg remains as brash as ever in proclaiming that they have signed up Professor Arthur Miller “to head up an appellate practice” and as many vulnerable victims as reachable of the greatest alleged Ponzi scheme in history to restuff their coffers (see “Milberg Rides Madoff” at http://www.crainsnewyork.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090104/FREE/901039944).
We at Hanover Legal are heartened that some prominent practitioners like Cravath’s Evan Chesler are striving to revamp the billable hour formula which simultaneously disincentivizes efficient production for clients and humane working conditions for attorneys (see “Cravath’s Chesler: Time to Kill the Billable Hour” at http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2009/01/cravaths-chesler-time-to-kill-the-billable-hour.html), and predict that the firms that will thrive in 2009 are those that will veer away from the pursuit of AmLaw chart ascent for its own sake, strengthen their internal oversight, and adopt such policies motivated by concerns for health, balance and efficiency with respect to their own attorneys as well as their clients. We look forward to working with all of BigLaw in their efforts to break ground towards the achievement of such truly admirable goals in 2009, and wish the entire legal community a good and prosperous new year!