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.
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.
As we at Hanover Legal enter this new year and look back on BigLaw in 2008, we are reminded of the bibical tale of Lot’s wife glancing towards Sodom and turning to salt. So in the hope of avoiding a similar fate, we’ll keep our retrospective analysis brief.