When Dewey Ballantine and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae decided in 2007 to join forces to become Dewey & LeBoeuf, mortgage backed securities were still the rage, business was booming and few appreciated the intensity of the storm on the horizon. A mere one year later however, Dewey & LeBoeuf as well as every other major law firm had seen virtually all of its structured finance work disappear and some of those firms were soon to be history.
To be clear, 2011 was marked by stability in the world of BigLaw only in a relative sense, 2009 being characterized as perhaps the most tumultuous year in the history of major law firms and 2010 by paralyzing risk aversion and the refrain “flat is the new up.” Lateral hiring of associates and other service oriented attorneys picked up a trickle as the strongest of our major players sought to regain some of the bench strength they had let go in the aftermath of the 2008 Wall Street collapse, the leading pack ever thinning. Trimming and efficiency remained priorities as corporate clients continued to enjoy growing leverage over their law firm advisors, and law firm mergers and acquisitions were abundant as more players found themselves struggling merely to stay afloat while those not fortunate enough to accurately gauge the dangers around them or find healthier players on whom to link were swallowed up by the relentless waters around them.
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.