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.
While “tepid stability amidst continuing uncertainty” may best define the state of the legal market during the second quarter of 2010, stability of any sort has come as welcome relief from the historic tumult that characterized the brutal legal market of 2009.
As predicted, our law firms are now by and large leaner, meaner, and more competitive and also more focused on creating healthy, fair and diverse workplaces flexible enough to meet the needs of increasingly empowered personnel and clients alike. Layoffs are no longer the issue of the day and firms are taking advantage of the best buyer’s market in years to plug holes in practice capacity and acquire rare talent. Moreover, firms are continuing to branch out into emerging markets recognized as necessary hedges to the traditional bread and butter major-market corporate work that has sustained BigLaw for decades.
With 2009 — the most tumltuous year in the history of major law firms since the Great Depression — now a full quarter behind us, we are poised to assess the extent to which the myriad changes then implemented in the universe of BigLaw seem to have taken root, and prognosticate a bit as to what we are likely to see in the three quarters to come.
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.
As the US Army engages in introspection with respect to its internal oversight in the wake of the Fort Hood massacre and the SEC does the same after the Madoff disaster, the government is clearly announcing that it will require no less of private sector supervisors than it will of itself. In a recent example, the SEC is compelling the former general counsel and CEO of San Francisco investment bank Merriman Curhan Ford to pay for its failure to properly supervise David “Scott” Cacchione, who pleaded guilty to fraud in March for emailing customer accounts to William “Boots” Del Biaggio III in connection with a scheme to scam banks out of $50 million worth of loans: “When you find major frauds at a broker dealer like this, you’re going to naturally look at ‘Where is the supervision?'” said Michael Dicke, the enforcement director of the San Francisco office.