The New Republic’s latest cover story, “The Last Days of Big Law – You Can’t Imagine the Terror When the Money Dries Up” by Noam Scheiber, is a dishy article about the international law firm of Mayer Brown. The author recited some of Mayer Brown’s well known management missteps over the last decade and cited numerous unnamed sources, most of whom are former lawyers at the firm, to construct a parable of what’s wrong with the rest of Big Law.
For the record, I once consulted with Mayer Brown and think highly of that firm and the leaders, lawyers and marketers I worked with who are still there.
The author of The New Republic article looks down his nose at Mayer Brown and, consequently, Big Law for (1) having too many lawyers, (2) replacing expensive lawyers with cheaper lawyers, and (3) firing anyone because there’s not enough work for them to do. He says he's shocked to discover that (4) Big Law is also Big Business, which those of us who work in and for law firms have known for some time. Perhaps most amusingly, he is even more shocked to find that (5) lawyers are competitive creatures who are ideally educated and trained to game every reward system ever built.
The author employs the effective journalistic techniques of card-stacking, false assumptions, either-or-fallacies, false generalizations, etc. Given his skills, I’m surprised he doesn’t do more political reporting.
He appears either ignorant or uncaring of any actual facts about the size of the corporate legal services market and its recent- and long-term trends. However, he’s not alone in that regard, since “The Sky Is Falling” still seems to be #1 on the “I Wonder if Someone Will Pay Me to Write about Law Firms?” hit parade. Here are just a couple of actual facts:
• In 2007, Am Law 100 total revenue was $62.9 billion. In 2012, it had grown to $73.4 billion. Yes, some of that was due to cross-border mergers. But most of it was not.
• By 2020, Global 500 revenue is predicted to double – from $30 trillion to $60 trillion. Call me crazy, but the business, legal, political, demographic, and other changes that accompany that growth will doubtless require some considerable, proportionate growth in legal services.
(An aside to those who think the above facts are misleading: If your own firm’s revenue is declining, then the proper response might be to consider whether your firm is selling what buyers used to buy, not what they’re buying now.)
I readily acknowledge that my irritation with this article and similar ones I’ve read lately stems from my long tenure in the legal services industry. I’ve been around law firms so long now that, while I constantly see new things happening, I also see them as part of longer-term patterns. For that reason, I suppose I’m less alarmed than younger participants in this space.
All industries change – they change a lot. And people adapt – so much better than you’d think they would. There are always career casualties when big change comes. The resilient are resilient. The unresilient are not. The popular theory that the legal profession and the legal services industry don’t and won’t change is one that I simply refuse to accept. I’ve seen firms, lawyers, leaders, and their business advisors all change so much in the decades I’ve worked in this industry. The future rewards – financial, intellectual, and otherwise – of adapting successfully are too great to ignore.
Finally, I do get piqued by those who randomly wander in from off the street and say: “Hey, I know somebody who used to work in a law firm, and they hated it. You guys must all be miserable, too!” When that happens, I think for a moment about how good it would feel to toss my beer in his face. And then I smile and remember – that’s why I don’t do PR for law firms.