Our long held view that BigLaw is among the most conservatively run and change resistant industries on the planet seems understated in light of the tornedos that we’ve been experiencing of late. That said, 2010 served to raise awareness of issues critical to our long term viability such as globalization, diversification of practices as well as personnel, alternative billing and work-life balance and it appears that by and large, while still far from healthy, BigLaw is a better place to live and work as we enter 2011 than it was a year ago.
2010 drew to a close without a great deal of fanfare, which was precisely what the doctor ordered. After a harrowing stretch for our players and managers alike, many are content merely to see the light of day as we enter the new year and decade. Sonnenschein finalized its merger with Denton as did Squire Sanders with Hammonds to join the ranks of great American firms including Hogan & Hartson, Mayer Brown, and Rogers & Wells all chosing the path of combining with London to gain a competitive edge and improve fortunes. In contrast, Proskauer and SJ Berwin broke off their engagement, reportedly on an amicable basis. Our pundits at Hanover Legal view Proskauer’s continuing independence as a clear net positive for this perpetually rising New York star, especially in light of the less than inspiring history of transatlantic unions.
Whether or not firms decided they were better off negotiating turbulent waters solo or in tandem, the common refrain among people in the business was that with respect to revenue and compensation, “even is the new up.” Associate lateral hiring remained at a virtual standstill, those employed recognizing that thousands of equally qualified casualties from the 2009 hemorrhaging remain available and eager to take their spots on a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, partners with business remained highly sensitive to tremors in order to be prepared to jump in a timely fashion should the need arise, Howrey’s former vice-chairman Henry Bunsow exemplifying this in announcing that he would be leaving for a more secure platform aboard monolith Dewey & LeBoeuf. In taking with him an estimated $20 million book of intellectual property business and perhaps any lingering hopes for Howrey’s resuscitation he explained: “I lived through the down times, but I wanted some insurance. … Rather than waiting to see if the good times were around the corner, I wanted to take advantage of them now. I didn’t want to invest more years in the process.”
While firms remained reluctant to implement change, Main Justice did not hesitate to announce that it would not hesitate to do so in its war on white collar crime. Perhaps for the benefit of particularly tone-deaf potential fraudsters, Southern District of New York Criminal Division Chief Richard Zabel warned that his soldiers would make “aggressive use of wiretaps” in cases such as the one against Galleon Group founder Raj Rajaratnam as opposed to relying solely on cooperating witnesses and e-mails — a formula that proved insufficient in the office’s recent case against Bear Stearns ex-fund managers Richard Cioffi and Matthew Tannin.
The fury still raging on Main Street towards Wall Street ensured that at the very least, white collar defense lawyers and securities litigators will be in demand in 2011. As for general corporate work, those who have set up shop in emerging markets including China and Brazil are likely to be rewarded as the U.S. economy continues to putter along. Real estate lawyers predict at least one more year of gasping for air. By and large, our sense is that in 2011 BigLaw managing partners will be praised for keeping their attorneys free from sea-sickness, and those that achieve accelleration in the seemingly interminable uphill race against a myriad of energy sapping forces will be duly revered.
On a more personal note, Hanover Legal, founded in 2000, now enters our second decade of life. In contemplating these last ten years we are reminded of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” So in this context, please accept our genuinely good-hearted wishes for a relatively boring next decade!