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The Big Firm Scenario

published May 20, 2013

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In the old days, most lawyers worked by themselves or in small firms. Now, however, some law firms have more than 1,000 lawyers. Imagine a business organization composed of 1,000 lawyers. Now think of something more pleasant--like an attack of body lice.

Some of these firms are so large they have branches all over the world. When you bring in a potential new client, you have to do a massive computer search to see whether anyone in any branch office is currently suing this client. Otherwise, your firm could end up on both sides of the litigation. This would not violate professional ethics, you understand--but some finicky clients will whine about it to the point of annoyance.


When you arrive at the firm on the first day of work, you enter a lobby that had the same designer as the Taj Mahal. The law firm sells tickets to the public just to look at it. Also, since all the senior partners demand a corner office, the building is shaped like a dodecahedron. Then they take you in the back and show you your office--a cubicle with a telephone. If you had wanted to work in an office like this, you would have gone into telemarketing.

If you thought that law school was rigid and hierarchical, you are in for a shock. By comparison, law school was a hippie commune. Everything in the firm operates strictly according to seniority. At the top of the food chain (or letterhead) is a senior partner, an ancient but wealthy man who is lucid only for brief moments at a time. This is the lawyer's lifelong ambition: you work until you become the senior partner. Then you die.

The firm's day-to-day operations are really governed by a Managing Committee. You have never met them, however. The only evidence that this Gang of Four exists consists of memos that periodically show up on your desk and make announcements, such as: "Beginning tomorrow all personnel shall wear uniforms to work. Please pick yours up at the supply office on the ninth floor. That is all."

Let me explain how large law firms work. The partners hire associates, pay them about a third of the income the associates bring in, and keep the rest. Naturally, it is better to have more associates and fewer partners, the better. After the associates have billed a gazillion hours a year writing memos for seven years, the partners throw them out on their car and hire new associates. Fifty large law firms therefore combine the best features of an indentured servitude, a sweatshop in the garment district, and a pyramid scheme.

Associates bill huge numbers of hours. Sometimes this is accomplished through "triple billing," a technique by which an associate works on client A's matter while flying to a city for client B, and he thinks that the issue may possibly somehow someday be relevant to client C. So he bills each client full bore. It is also accomplished through a time warp on the fourteenth floor, which allows associates to bill fifteen hours in a ten-hour day.

You work long hours, but it's worth it. There's nothing that compares with the quiet joy and satisfaction of helping an underprivileged mega monopoly without a friend in the world. You went into law because you wanted to help people. During the recent economic downturn, however, law firms found that normal attrition was inadequate, and partners could be seen throwing even junior associates out of windows like sandbags.

You spend most of your time swapping threats of "My robber baron can beat your robber baron." What an epic battle that would be: The Clash of the Cretins. Well, it's 3:00 A.M. Time to call it a day.

You work for years to become a partner in your firm. Partnership is the carrot that law firms hold out to you. Then, as you get closer to it, they either move the carrot away or slice it into smaller pieces. That's if you're lucky. If you're like most associates, they hand you a small bag of dirt and tell you to go somewhere else and grow your own carrots.

As a defense mechanism, you tell yourself that you do not intend to stay around and become a partner. You are planning to stay here just for a while, because it will look good on your resume. You wonder whether, when you die, your resume will be seventeen pages long, but you will never have gotten around to living. At your funeral they will bury you in the ritzy section of the cemetery, because it will look better on your resume.

If you make partner, life is not much better than it was as an associate. The definition of a partner is a "self-employed slave." Partners spend most of their lives squabbling like a pack of hyenas over the firm's profits. This is what it means to practice at the highest level of a noble profession dedicated to the ideal of public service, to be the defenders of liberty and the architects of social worlds. It is also what it means to be a hyena.

Partnership profits are divided up according to complicated quadratic equations devised by theoretical mathematicians. The firm keeps these secret formulas locked away in the safe, so that the associates can't see how much money the partners are making off of them.

In the old days lawyers didn't worry so much about making money. They considered themselves a profession, not a business. However, things have changed, and lawyering has become more of a big business. Firms now require lawyers to work even longer hours than beforehand to spend whatever free time they have digging up new business. As a result, the job satisfaction of lawyers has declined markedly in recent years. To have an easier career, many lawyers are leaving practice and getting jobs working in salt mines.

Meanwhile, legal fees have continued to climb. One reason is the rising cost of modern equipment. Law firms have bought jumbo computers that can spit out septillions of enormous documents packed with legalese. Just a couple of keyboard strokes can bury your opponent in paper. And people once thought that technology would actually speed up the justice system! Ha!

Big law firms have a reputation for not giving junior people enough responsibility. The story is that the clients and the cases are so big that firms can't risk having anyone with less than fifty years' experience actually go to trial, since less senior people might blow it. This, however, is a bad rap. Many junior partners do have significant supervisory responsibilities--for example, cite-checking cases researched by the senior associates. So, law review is good training for big firm practice, after all.

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