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.
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.
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.
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.
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.