Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Stop Bashing BigLaw?

My friend Eric Cooperstein over at Lawyerist wants us to stop bashing BigLaw.


He says : "I am a solo and if large law firms crash, I am going to end up covered in dust."

He acknowledges "biglaw has a reputation for some qualities that give the law a bad name — high fees, leveraging associates to increase partner salaries, huge billable hour requirements, and lousy work / life balance, to name a few of the popular gripes."

"But biglaw suits some lawyers," he rightly states.

He notes that small firms/solos have their good and bad:

The smalls, in contrast, love to tout their personalized attention to clients, reasonable fees, individual autonomy, and great work / life balance. But not all smalls are good at bringing together the myriad of skills it takes to run a law practice. Most smalls practice some form of “retail” law: criminal, family, personal injury, workers comp, small business, real estate. Often the clients are high maintenance and the income stream equally unstable.

Eric is right that "individual clients; these folks need smalls," and that:

"A large company with millions of dollars on the line looks for a brand name, the vetting of associates and partners, and the ability to quickly put together a team of lawyers to tackle major litigation or a huge transaction."

Then he tries to put this all together in a tied with a small bow on why "we need each other."

He says Biglaw has conflicts and needs to refer out clients and cases. He also says that:

"Biglaw’s corporate clients are managed by people — who get divorced, have too much to drink before driving home, get into accidents, etc. Many of those matters need to be referred out. Smart lawyers refer clients to good lawyers they know who are reasonably priced and will treat the client well — like smalls."

He also says we need each other because:

"Biglaw attorneys are a great source of referrals for smalls. Also, when a case comes in that is to big for a small to handle, the small firm needs to bring in some muscle. Obscure questions may arise in a client’s case that need special expertise that can be found only at a large firm. Relationships with biglaw are a two-way street."

I've written about Biglaw here countless times. I never worked in Biglaw. They weren't hiring law students that wanted to be criminal defense lawyers (still aren't) because they tend to have that one "white collar" lawyer who mainly has associates review documents (bashing). Biglaw doesn't practice "street level" criminal defense, as Eric correctly notes," and they're not interested in law students who want to go to court (bashing). My 3 years in the public defender's office was worth more than 10 in Biglaw.

Biglaw is not all that old. The first big firms didn't come around until the mid-twentieth century. Now they're all in debt, trying to survive. (bashing)

I agree with Eric that law exists on two levels - there are those that need Biglaw and those that need small law. But I think Eric misses the reason Biglaw gets bashed.

Biglaw, as an institution, looks down on small law. (bashing) They tell their new associates that "this" is the way you practice law. They call us "some solo practitioner," and for the most part do everything they can to convince a client to stay with the firm even for the smallest matter. Why? Because they are scared that if one of their clients goes to a small firm or solo, they may understand that they don't need 4 associates on their case. (bashing)

When I write about Biglaw, some anonymous commenter (same idiot) always says it's because I have Biglaw envy. Anyone who knows me, my practice, my 3 rejections of merging with Biglaw, and my referral sources (Biglaw firms) knows that isn't the case.

The truth is that I think Biglaw as an institution does a disservice to the young lawyer. Disagree? How many laid off Biglaws are out there that after a few years in the firm, have no idea how to practice law? This is how Biglaw rolls. Don't teach the lawyer too much about start to finish type practice so they feel they can't leave and go out on their own, or go anywhere else.

So I agree with Eric, he makes some great points.

But I don't feel bad for what's happening now in Biglaw. Clients are becoming more frugal, smarter, and those firms have to come down to earth. No more french maids ironing napkins (true story).

So no Eric, you won't collapse along with Biglaw. There will always be a client who needs a good lawyer to help them.

Regardless of what Biglaw thinks. (bashing)

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. Read his free ebook The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. Please visit www.tannebaumweiss.com


1 comment:

Josh King said...

In nearly 15 years of in-house practice, I've always used solo and small firm attorneys for some matters. While we wouldn't hire for stuff that needed a lot of bodies thrown at it (major litigation; M&A), I've very productively used solo/small firm lawyers for real estate, employment litigation, regulatory work, etc. Like a growing number of in-house lawyers, I care a lot more about the attorney I'm hiring than the firm. If anything, biglaw's woes will accelerate this practice.