The Death of Big Law Has Been Greatly Exaggerated. Again.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
July 24 2013 5:52 AM

The Fascinating Vampire Squids of Law

How rumors of the demise of Big Law keep getting grossly exaggerated.

Are big firms like Weil really dying out?
People have been saying for years that big law firms are dying out, and yet they're still here.

Photo by Comstock/Thinkstock

As Rolling Stone just helpfully reminded us, even the best-intentioned magazine narrative can be undone by an overly provocative sales hook. The New Republic’s latest cover piece avoids the Rolling Stone trap of a cover image whose ironic message overwhelms the story’s point entirely. In fact, TNR’s photo of Bob Odenkirk as smarmy Breaking Bad lawyer Saul Goodman plays directly into the crowd-pleasing hook that TNR uses to hype its big cover story this week about the death of Big Law. But there’s the rub: A simple, valid business yarn gets hijacked by narrative tricks that amount to a greater journalistic sin than trying to humanize the Boston Marathon bombing suspect.

Let’s start with what’s good about the story by TNR senior editor Noam Scheiber. By describing hard economic times in Big Law—the elite, global law firms that serve huge corporate clients—Scheiber just might convince a few English majors not to bother taking the LSATs. In case they’ve missed the dozens of earlier opportunities to learn that a costly law degree does not automatically entitle them to a life of wealth and comfort, Scheiber’s vivid tale of one firm’s bloodletting over—what else?—compensation should steer a few idealistic paper chasers into more productive and surefire pursuits, like developing smartphone apps or Colorado pot farming. Scheiber correctly notes an oversupply of pricey legal talent in a down economy has led to a market resembling “some grand psychological experiment involving rats in a cage with too few crumbs.”

But this is where the story breaks bad. From the cover lines and title (“Big Law in Free Fall,” “The Last Days of Big Law”) to an outlandishly flimsy nut graf (claiming just one in 10 top firms will survive the imminent apocalypse, or so says “one common hypothesis” that then never gets explained or examined), the story looks at one sore throat and proclaims it a cancer pandemic. Its prognosis on the death of the mid-sized full-service firm echoes a forecast made so many times it has lost all credibility. Then the piece takes yet another giant step into journalism hell by shooting readers through a time warp that conveniently skips the past 30 or so years of Big Law business history. Big Law has been declared dying for decades. Pieces touting the death of Big Law have been written for decades. Unfortunately, “Big Law Still Really, Really Dying,” while arguable (except where it’s still really, really profitable), doesn’t sell copy.

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From the start, we’re introduced to a dreamscape vision of American law as it was practiced until, supposedly, the end times arrived this week. In this professional paradise of “benevolent paternalism,” hushed voices, and plush red leather, clients throw money at lawyers who pamper their young and feast on intellectually and financially rewarding work that seemingly has no end. If the “Cravath model” of up-or-out competition to make partner proves too daunting, there’s the alternative “Chicago model” of moving in a straight line from summer clerkship through the associate ranks to the promised land. The trite phrase “white shoe” to describe the elite firms makes three appearances. Nowhere does the layman learn that this Mad Men of Law motif withered in most firms and cities in the 1970s and ’80s, and that traditionalists have long since given up squawking about the loss of collegiality and professionalism.

But here, suddenly, law turns into a crass business. People are self-interested and mean to each other! Cost-cutting corporations are super-serious about no longer handing law firms a blank check. Partners stomp on the fingers of those beneath them on the ladder to the top, new mommies work long hours, hustle matters more than sheer smarts, and pay linked to performance makes people behave badly. Worst of all, the 2008 financial collapse ushers in previously unheard-of lawyer layoffs. Lawyers, Scheiber announces, can be greedy. “No relationship in the legal profession is more fraught,” he intones, “than the one between partners and their money.” Film at 11.

Scheiber is careful, of course, to insert a wink here and there to show that he knows this isn’t exactly breaking news, or even new in the slightest. But then he resumes hyping it all as a previously undiscovered tsunami that’s just about to crest. In the rush to prove the point, he tells us little or nothing about past overbuilding binges gone bad, from the collapse of Finley Kumble in 1987 to the implosion of firms a dozen to 15 years later that bet too heavily on bubbles in technology and finance, and then either folded entirely or culled the legal herd by dozens or hundreds.

Perhaps even more relevant would have been the gradual but remarkable expansion of these businesses at the top of the pyramid, redefining large again and again, to the point that today’s 2,000-lawyer, multibillion-dollar-grossing machines are quadruple the size of the largest firms of just a couple of decades ago. Accompanying that growth is a constant, looming tension: to grow through acquisition or organically, by merging and hiring talent with “books of business” or by recruiting and training talent in a long-range game of forecasting demand several years down the road.

All along, corporate legal officers—the clients (and often former partners) of the law firms—have vowed to clamp down on extravagant hourly fees and legal bills that outstrip any business rationale. For some reason, though, they never reach the client-driven nirvana that Scheiber touts, of outsourced research and dramatically pruned invoices, simply because legal bills, compared at least to banker fees, amount to rounding errors when corporations need outside counsel to do their deals and defend them in bet-the-company litigation. In both flush times or crises, the fees flow.

There’s a simple reason a story about natural business cycles and incremental, decades-spanning change invariably turns into a tale of impending doom and radical transformation: the journalist’s impulse to hype. It’s tough to interest a general audience, even one as wonky as the New Republic’s, in a story about the business of law. A little razzamatazz is forgivable.

But there’s a deeper instinct at work here, as well. Let’s call it the Vampire Squid meme. It’s been four years since Matt Taibbi called Goldman Sachs “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” but it might as well have been last week for that quote’s staying power. Scheiber’s story lacks such instant branding, but it’s striving for it. Look at how the magazine’s Laura Bennett distills the story, in a Q&A with cover model Odenkirk:

… basically it’s about the moral decay of white-shoe law firms in the post-recession era, their descent into hotbeds of backstabbing and greed.

This is crowd-pleasing stuff: the grade-grubbing, argumentative kid in class who got too rich too soon but shows up at the high school reunion divorced, drunk, and “between jobs.” Feel better about yourself now? It’s a feel-good story for those of us who are heartened to hear the news that “Big Law Still Really, Really Dying.”

At least the Odenkirk-as-Goodman cover makes us laugh instead of cringe. And if it means that the world has at least one less starry-eyed law student, then it will have achieved some good, too.

Mark Obbie, a freelance writer on law and business, is the former executive editor of the American Lawyer and taught magazine journalism at Syracuse University. He critiques crime journalism and criminal justice reporting on his blog.