Listen carefully and you will hear BigLaw breathing a collective sigh of relief as we continue to distance ourselves from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the ensuing havoc that characterized the legal market of 2009.
It would hardly be an overstatement to say that the 2008 debacle of Wall Street hit the world of BigLaw like a tsunami. In October of that year, Thelen’s management — which was already on its last legs after its ill-fated acquisition of Brown Raysman only one year earlier — began parcelling out entire sections of their firm. At the same time Heller Ehrman, whose partners had voted to dissolve on September 26, was closing its cafeterias and starting to remove coffee machines from its numerous offices nationwide. Like falling dominoes, one firm after another began throwing as much baggage overboard as possible in seeming desperation. By the end of the month, Katten had laid off 21 attorneys, Sonnenschein 24 and Clifford Chance 20. Even firm captains were jumping ship. Thacher Proffitt’s Vice Chairman lateralled to Greenberg Traurig and Thelen’s Chairman was reported to be in talks to join Howrey. Firms across the board were scaling back and in some cases eliminating their summer programs outright, forcing law students everywhere to consider debt forgiveness programs and alternative careers even before graduation.
We may be a millenium from the day that BigLaw is healthy enough to enable its attorneys to train sufficiently for a spot in the real Tour de France. But we certainly took a spin in the right direction when three members of Hogan & Hartson, namely Warren Gorrell, 55 (Hogan’s chairman), Stephen Immelt, 57 (partner in Hogan’s Baltimore office) and Dennis Tracey, 53 (managing partner of Hogan’s U.S. offices) hammered unofficially but with ample BigLaw fanfare through one particularly beautiful stage of the celebrated bike race, culminating atop a pristine peak amidst the Alps.
After almost a decade of continuous ascent in the categories of revenue, profits, salaries and bonuses since the last deep doldrums we experienced following the collapse of the dot-com bubble, BigLaw’s current plunge from the stratosphere feels to most of our players to be more perilous than ever. The prevailing sense of fear was exemplified this week by the venerable Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in announcing that as part of its keep-the-boat-afloat strategy, it is offering its incoming associate class a $75,000 payout to any rookie who elects not to jump on board, eclipsing the significance of Skadden’s historic offer earlier this year to pay associates at a rate of 33 percent of base to take a premature sabbatical.
While our economy crumbles, the American public observes like lemmings as the Wall Street criminals who executed the greatest financial fraud in history add insult to our collective injury by continuing to openly steal billions. Only now, instead of conning the world into believing that their excrement is some sort of sophisticated securities derivative too complex for non-Streeters to comprehend, they are referring to their cash grab as “bonuses.” Relatively insignificant sociopaths like Bernie Madoff can only aspire to sit at the desks of these miscreants whose greed may still prove monumental enough to bring us all to ruin. We at Hanover Legal are certainly not the first to ask whether and when members of our legal community should have recognized and tried to put a stop to the epic Wall Street slight of hand. However, we viewed our function as limited to servicing the financiers to whatever extent we were paid to do so, and as long as Moody’s and S&P were signing off on these transactions with their highest ratings, who were we to raise an eyebrow?