Lawyers Flee Megafirms:
The National Law Journal has an interesting piece about lawyers leaving large law firms because they are, well, too large. It's not my area of expertise, so I'll open comments and see what better-informed readers have to say.
theDA (mail):
i prosecute; my yearly bonus is a $750 dry cleaning allowance.

my roommate is a patent lawyer - at a 200 person firm; his '04 bonus was $7500.


but i do have 29 vacation days to use this year (and they all roll over).
5.28.2005 3:17pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
DA: You seem overpaid. Your slacker specialty permits 23 million crimes a year, 5 million being violent. There is a 1% chance of a legal consequence if one committs an FBI Index felony.

I suggest increasing the DA salary by a multiple of 10 to attract competence. Tie bonuses to drops in the crime rate.

Your office should be competitively outsourced to a big firm.
5.28.2005 3:44pm
A. Nym:
Wow - 29 vacation days. As someone who hasn't had a vacation in 3 years, I'm amazed at a nearly 10% time off.

SupremacyClaus: I don't follow. He's overpaid, so we should pay him more?

Orin: On the original topic, Of course attorneys are fleeing. Large firms are turning into businesses, and lawyers are generally entreprenual. Is it any surprise that they don't want to be wage slaves?
5.28.2005 4:43pm
theDA (mail):
mr. claus: i hardly suspect the permission of crimes lies within the prosecutor's enforcement periphery.

as for pay, though i left the civil practice and its heavy pockets - so that i might actually practice law, i would gladly back your campaign for a salary increase.

5.28.2005 4:49pm
theDA (mail):
nym: unfortunatley, there is some merit in claus's mandate. i disagree as to why, however.

the da's office is a political body. that being the case, the finger of incompetence often gets pulled by daddy's strong hand.

in my opinion, the da's office is the third most sought after job by youing lawyers, right after federal clerkships and high paying-legailied-slave driving-megafirms.

5.28.2005 4:56pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
DA: As a taxpayer, I have no problem getting your pay squarely in the mid 6 figures, with huge bonuses, if you make crime go away. That would add $trillions to the growth of the economy, and you would still be worth far more. No great crime nor great amount of lesser crime can continue without permission. You lawyers tune the crime rate precisely for lawyer welfare job creation, what you call "procedure". None of it has any support in the Constitution. It is totally invented on your behalf.

For right now, you are correct. The DA job is an internship position, where the most important function of the law is left to raw recruits. This is appalling.

One thing you would not be allowed to do in a large firm if your job were outsourced: spend $2 million prosecuting celebrities for infractions deserving a $100 fine, just to get your name in the paper, and a pelt with a recognizable name on the DA wall. Meanwhile, illegal alien gangs are allowed to terrorize our people with automatic weapons and beheadings of the families of their adversaries.
5.28.2005 5:13pm
theDA (mail):
mr. claus:

as far as the DA system works, the blame is not on the raw recrutis or incompetence per se(except for the aforementioned privliged).

the problem is, as you have pointed out, that the county low balls the felony attorney's with insulting salaries. why should felony DA's stay in the office when private attorneys down the street with a third of the skill or experience are mnaking 3 times the money?

by the time an attorney is ready to prosecute felonies, he is normally ready to begin starting a family/ buy a home/ pay off the crazy student loans etc. thus, there is a need for more money. since the attorney will not be getting that money from the county, he needs to look elsewhere.

as a result of the above, inexperienced (not incompetent) attorenys often get thrown into battle before they have mastered the skills of advocacy..

as for the terrorist, talk to your fine senators kennedy and mccain - that is what is appalling
5.28.2005 6:09pm
John Steele (mail):
That article reminds me of Yogi Berra's line about the restaurant, "Nobody goes there anymore -- it's too crowded." The article focuses on a lawyer who left the firm because it grew from 250 to 1,000. So isn't the article really about the out-migration that's been happening as large firms keep getting bigger each year? The article describes a trend within the much larger trend of continued biglaw growth.

Why are they departing? The example of the lawyer leaving the large firm for the mid-sized firm because it matched the economics of his client base is plausible, as is the point about conflicts and junior partners. (It can be harder to build your book in a large firm with numerous existing clients.) The smaller and mid-sized firms may have lower billable hour requirements, lower administrative hour requirements, less pressure to build a highly leveraged pyramid -- and those firms may still provide a handsome living. For any particular lawyer, other factors leading to biglaw exit may include age, energy levels, family and personal interests, and the desire to try something new.
5.28.2005 8:19pm
Elliot (www):
You guys are depressing this fresh meat new law school grad.
5.29.2005 1:20am
Budding Screenwriter?:

So let me get this straight -- all of criminal procedure is just a grand conspiracy to keep lawyers employed by keeping crime up?

That's awesome, man. I seldom see such creative loopiness.

It's inspirational, really. You know, if I ever write a screenplay, I'll have to insert a crazy-best-friend (or perhaps crazy-roommate), just to use this line. One of the first things out of his mouth will be that all criminal procedure is a conspiracy to keep crime high enough to make more jobs for lawyers. With any luck, I'll have a character worthy of a Woody Allen flick.
5.29.2005 1:20am
William Henderson (www):
I think John is right. The trend is obviously that Big Law is getting bigger. My own research suggests that the number of lawyers at a current Am Law 200 firm has, on average, nearly doubled in the last decade.

Perhaps the rate of attrition is increasing, but the article does not provide data suggesting that attrition is becoming a problem for Big Law firms. Somtimes high attrition is part of the business model. And there is no shortage of lawyers who are willing to work very long hours at prestigious firms that pay very well, even if the environment is becoming, as the article suggests, more impersonal and bureaucratic.
5.29.2005 2:31am
SupremacyClaus (mail):
Bud: Try to say something lawyerly, on topic. While there are 23 million FBI Index Felonies committed a year, labeling dissent as insanity is misplaced. The forbearance of such an intentionally elevated victimization rate would be insanity without the real explanation, rent-seeking.

This is a thread on the exodus of lawyers from large law firms. The DA office should be outsourced to large firms, with contract DA's paid properly, in proportion to the difficulty and importance of their task, with bonuses for performance based on crime victimization survey results.

In a private firm, dependent on these survey results for bonuses, the DA prosecuting a celebrity at a cost of $2 mil, for lying to a Federal officer, would be fired. The contract DA preventing 100's of violent crimes a year by obtaining the death penalty for an illegal alien gang member would get the $2 mil as a bonus. The damage by this gang member drops the property values of his area by many $mils of dollars. The $2 mil is a small tip in comparison to the real economic value of the successful prosecution.

Your characterization of my message is correct. Crime is tuned and herded for maximum lawyer employment downtown, and lawyer safety where they live, in the suburbs. Go the the street that separates a city from suburb. The drug dealer will refuse to cross it for a deal on the suburb side. On one side is profit. On the suburb side is a high risk of a long prison sentence. On one side of the same street, hell on earth, on the other, Japan class, low crime rates. Perfect for lawyer advantage.

A vicious cycle oscillates between procedure and the number of law school grads. Inexplicable, pro-criminal, anti-accuracy procedure is invented by lawyers on the bench, without basis in the Constitution.
5.29.2005 2:58am
Tbag (mail) (www):
As a law student that just finished my second year and considering going to a large firm, I think I'll try to get us back on topic here.

I think a lot of students with the opportunity to go (and who see private practice as the first step in their new careers) think of the large firm as just another part of their education. That may sound strange, but I get the sense that many young lawyers-to-be (myself included) see biglaw as something for a resume. After 3-4 years as an associate, I will make a decision. Either I will try to make partner at whatever firm I end up at, or I will "downshift" - using the firm name on my resume as an addendum to my degree - and spend less time (and perhaps make less money) doing something more specialized and/or at a smaller office.

And Claus - you're making the typical "privatize everything" advocate's mistake of completely ignoring the collateral effects of allowing a non-democratically controlled entity to wield state power. Reworking the DA's office as you suggest would be a disaster.
5.29.2005 7:57am
SupremacyClaus (mail):
TBag: I assume there are data behind your conclusory statement. Mine are simple, 23 million FBI Index Felonies a year, 5 mil of them violent. Criminal justice is close to being in failure.

Government does nothing well. Possible exception? Seek the rent through procedure and red tape. This is not a criticism of the government worker. That person often becomes a superb, efficient performer upon leaving, moving to a big law firm where a salary appropriately 10 times higher awaits. Move the current experienced crew to their own profit making shop, with big bonuses for results in the local crime victimization survey? Fireworks.

And $2 mil expenditures (40 times the value of the crime) on the trial of a celebrity crime meriting a fine and restitution? No way, in the private sector. (Memo from taxpayer: that self-aggrandizing, prosecutorial dunce should lose his job.) In the private sector, that $2 mil bill would be in the dunce's personal overhead calculation.

Private law firms, acting under color of law, would also have none of the self-dealt immunities nor discretions of George III. Justice would be served for their false negative and their false positive errors of judgment. They would have to buy insurance. When you see "insurance", think "lawyer jobs". You will like the proposal if you give it some thought.

You say "democratically controlled". How is accountability asserted against an official with total immunity and total discretion? I missed that part of your argument. There is no greater democratic control than money payment in competitive bidding, renewable on the short leash of 2 years contracts, with big bonuses for lowering the crime victimization survey rate.
5.29.2005 9:48am
Pete Freans (mail):
The gist of the argument seems to be that prosecuting offices should be privatized, which in turn will attract more competent attorneys because of higher salaries, which will result in lower crime. It certainly wraps the problem in a neat little package in theory, but crime prevention is much more complicated. High profile cases on Court TV do not represent the thousands of competent prosecutors (federal, state, and local) who are buried under growing caseloads.

The fact is, it is impossible to properly address at length every case while still respecting a defendant's due process rights. Privatizing prosecutors will do NOTHING to reduce caseloads and revolving-door defendants.

Do I think too many cases are thrown-out or too many defendants plead or are given probation? You bet I do. But when your profession essentially becomes a baby-sitting service for repeat-offenders, privatizing those offices will not alter the free will of socio-paths and will certainly not change human nature.

Crime is a comprehensive problem which requires a comprehensive solution -from politicians, police, probation officers, judges, case managers, and of course lawyers.

By the way, I do enjoy my vacation days as well.
5.29.2005 10:46am
dantes (mail) (www):
Wow -- talk about hi-jacked threads. Very polite, Mr. 'Supremacy'. As for the actual topic, the article accurately captures what I saw going in the McFirms at the time I left in February. I think, though, that there is no single over-arching reason, such as raw size, for the current migration. I left because I didn't want to raise my children in Washington. I love my new practice, am challenged daily, and have not regretted the decision for even an instant.
5.29.2005 11:35am
theDA (mail):
pete - nice post.


by the way, i too, left a megafirm mentioned in the articel to prosecute.
5.29.2005 11:43am
YOu wrote that law students consider working in a mega-firm as a continuing education, and said you would wait 3 or 4 years and see what you wanted to do. I think that is a common view, but it has risks. Depending on the work you do, 3 or 4 years might be the limit to stay at a mega-firm. I am a trial lawyer in a 130-lawyer regional firm. Many times I have interviewed 4-6 year lawyers from DC or NY with a famous name on the resume. In many cases, the lawyers clearly believe that the experience they got in the mega-firm guarantees them a position with us. The problem in many cases, however, is that there are fifth-year lawyers in mega-firms who have never taken a deposition, or had a meaningful hearing. At that level, I expect a litigator to have tried cases or at least been on the courthouse steps (we all know cases settle or summary judgment gets granted last minute). We do not need a fifth-year lawyer who has written memos and drafted briefs for five years. Lawyers like that are expecting six-year money, but have second-year experience. So if you go to a large firm, push for real experience. (One woman I met did a substantial amount of pro bono work to get herself in the courtroom; that was impressive to us on several levels.)
The thing that a mega-firm name shows me is that the lawyer is intelligent and willing to work hard. Stay too long, however, and it can hurt.
5.29.2005 12:04pm
The Graduate:
I think much of the discontent with megafirms stems from a disconnect between the interests of associates and the interests of senior partners.

Megafirms make money. Economies of scale, branding, and the ability to market a megafirm as a one-stop shop for corporate clients all mean that profits per partner tend to be higher at the biggest firms.

If you've been with a firm for decades and already know the other senior partners, having an army of associates and junior partners to bring in and do work probably doesn't adversely affect your quality of life much, but it does increase your quarterly draw.

As a junior associate, though, once you get above a certain size (at which there are big-firm resources, good cases, and a diversity of practice groups), it doesn't benefit you at all for the firm to get bigger. You're getting paid the standard big-city lockstep salary, and the more people there are, the smaller the fraction of the firm that you know, that you're comfortable going to if you need things, and that can advocate for you.

I think the "certain size" is what would traditionally have been the cutoff for "large firms": probably 100 attorneys or so. Even at 200 or 250, all in one office, you're liable to have met just about everyone, to know your classmates, etc. When the firm has half a dozen offices and 500 attorneys in one office, however, you're much more a cog in the machine, and have little to show for it (except maybe a bit of prestige, but even that's doubtful--there are plenty of prestigious firms with 200-300 lawyers total or with fairly autonomous 100-lawyer offices).

I wonder, in light of Tbag's comments: do the biggest megafirms have more retention problems than smaller, but still large firms?

(I think Tbag's comments are spot-on, but they strike me as a little sad. Because of the better cases, national-level opportunities, and better pay, I'd just as soon stay at a large law firm indefinitely. I have to wonder whether small-firm attorneys really bill all that much less.)
5.29.2005 12:46pm
Ivan (mail):
The article might have a point, but it seems to get there somewhat sloppily. It doesn't describe an attorney who joins a large firm, becomes discontented with its culture and leaves. Rather, it describes attorneys who join mid-size firms, become discontented after they merge to form mega-firms, then leave to go to other mid-size firms. There would obviously be many lawyers who fit the former model, but the article doesn't really address the reasons someone who joined a big firm would become discontented there. I would rather it focus on the trend of smaller firms merging to form massive ones, what considerations drive those decisions, and how an attorney reacts when the nature of her practice changes (including but not limited to leaving the firm). Either that, or find attorneys who joined a large firm in the first place, only to find it didn't serve their purposes and go to smaller practices. Either way, it seems obvious that a person who joins a mid-size firm would want to leave for another one when the initial firm merges and becomes huge.
5.29.2005 12:56pm
Law Student (www):
Having been a consultant in a former life before law school, this was part of the normal cycle of consulting. One firm gets "too big" and partners start heading for the door, which triggers partners at other firms to realize that they too could split and make a bigger paycheck. The firms all regroup, a couple new ones spring up, and then 10 years later it's the same situation all over again after a couple of mergers.

That said, it's a positive comment on the state of the legal market if partners are willing to jump ship from the biggest of the big.
5.29.2005 3:28pm
Tbag (mail) (www):
Schwing: Though I can't say it from experience, my hunch is that you're absolutely right. But I think that it's not just a product of how long you stay in biglaw, but where in biglaw you do your time. There are large firms that have a more meritocracy-like structure where gumption and skills can get you more substantial experience earlier in the process. I think it's incumbent on the law student to find out what fits best.

But I also didn't mean to suggest that there aren't plenty of law students who are gunning for partner at those big firms. I'm just not sure I'm one of them - but I certainly reserve the right to change my mind.

Graduate: Part of what lured me into considering a big firm are some of the non-financial things you've mentioned. I learned that I like having resources available so I can spend less time rationing and more time doing substantive work.
5.29.2005 6:32pm
Pete Freans (mail):
Sorry, some posts just annoy me and beg to be challenged.

As for the article, one advantage that smaller firms or solos have over mid-large law firms is there maneuverability, lower overhead, and more personalized service. Small firms and solos can outflank larger firms - who avoid smaller clients because it its simply not cost feasible - by offering lower fees and service that makes clients feel they truly have an advocate and advisor. How many big-firm associates drop-by a client's home or small business, or simply call a client (without running the clock), even if there is no news regarding their litigation? Not many, and understandably so. And there's something satisfying about rolling-up your sleeves and working one-on-one with your client to come up with creative, low-cost solutions to their problems. Small firms must offer a better product to compete, and with the help of
5.29.2005 7:16pm
Pete Freans (mail):
technology like this, it's a great time to downsize.
5.29.2005 7:18pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Tbag -- there are essentially two different practices in all big multi-practice firms. Litigation and transactional. Schwing is a litigator and I think he gave you the straight stuff. I am a transactional lawyer (or at least I was) and I think that the considerations are different in big firm transactional work.

My experience was that young associates in the transactional practice got thrown into the deep end by themselves a lot more at the big firms. I saw 2nd year associates running IPO's. The only problem was that they had no training at all (do not believe the hiring partners, they are not going to reduce your billables in order to train you.)

The other issue is that transactional work is becoming more and more a commodity, and lawyers are being pushed away from the center of the action. Basically the lawyers are told what the deal will be and to go paper it up. They are no longer anywhere near the center of the action. And this is as it should be. Sarbanes Oxley basically tells clients to stay away from lawyers, and they should.

My belief is that the transactional work will become increasingly mechanical and miserable. If that is what you wanted to do, my advice is become an I-Banker or a VC.

If you want to be a litigator, you are much better off in a samller firm, prosecutors office or public defender, where you will be assured of being in court enough to hone your chops as a litigator. Four yars in a windowless office sorting through boxes of documents will not advance your career at all.
5.29.2005 11:29pm
Andy Havens (mail) (www):
Here's my take, looking at it from the business side of the mega-firm momentum slow-down, rather than picking it apart on a psychographic joy-ride from a one-person-at-a-time view on the inside:

Big firms are finally coming up against the hard realities of running large scale businesses. Many of them have been trying to run 2,000-4,000 person companies like large-scale models of 200 person companies and finding out that a difference in scale eventually amounts to a difference in kind. You simply can't mom-and-pop it anymore at that size. Issue of recruiting, training, internal development, staff retention, cultural maturity, office-to-office politics, compensation issues... all of that "stuff" needs to be managed. And it's not being managed. It's being left, in most cases, to chance and "common sense." You know... the, "We're all adults here. These things will work themselves out."

Which is crap. Piles of it.

So... when you get past a certain size, "these things" become unlivable. It's like latrines in the woods. You can fake something up real quick for a couple of us guys on a fishing trip for a weekend, but if you've got a full-on Boyscout Jamboree, you need a plan, campers. And lots of the big firms out there are sans plan.

So, the people who won't trade quite-that-much quality of life for whatever it is they think they're getting at the mega-firm (money, status, safety), go somewhere else.

Do medium-sized firms actually do a better job at the management thing? Some are starting to catch on, if for no other reason than to provide a contrasting brand proposition, both to attorneys and to clients. But it's also something of a size determinant, too. Smaller still means less screwed up, on average. The pits in the woods simply haven't reached noxicity yet.
5.30.2005 1:16am
Tbag (mail) (www):
Robert - thanks for the insight. I'm heading toward litigation myself, and I definitely hear you.

I think there are shops where you can make some headway a little quicker. But maybe I'm just making the mistake of "listening to the hiring partner" here...

In any event, for people who need cash to offset student loans, the biglaw starting salary can be too good to pass up. It's not so much the money as the certainty that comes with it. It'll be nice to feel back on solid ground after amassing debt for a while...even if that solid ground is populated by boxes of documents. Though I still refuse to believe that any partner would waste my blinding charisma and razor sharp mind on such things. ;)
5.30.2005 7:13am
Big Firm Associate (mail):
I have some friends who work at DLA Piper, which is just bloody HUGE -- I believe they have over 3000 attorneys worldwide now. Anyway, they are definitely losing people -- especially partners and associates that were part of the smaller firms like Gray Cary that merged into the megafirm. From what some have told me, they just don't like being at a firm that is so big they can't comprehend where the resources are, or how to utilize their colleagues at other offices.
5.30.2005 11:53am
Undoubtedly some lawyers are leaving megafirms both because of conflicts and because the size of their clients is out of synch with the firm. I was also once a partner in a megafirm; one which ultimately imploded, and I experienced both problems in my own practice.

But, I also think that a lot of lawyers are exiting as a consequence of the mergers. I am now the General Counsel at a medium sized company that has completed multiple acquisitions over the last few years. In my role, I have overseen most of them. People absolutely hate being acquired. It changes everything down to who orders the pencils. Most businesses have a lot of irrational practices. Over time, people adjust to them. When you combine two businesses, the practices of one or the other will prevail. Even people who initially favored the change become disappointed and angry. Even people in the dominant business will resent the acquiree. Every relationship and balance of power is changed. Some people ultimately adjust, and some leave. Who those will be is often unpredictable. My company has done this a lot, we've adjusted and changed our methods, we've done careful post mortems on the acquisitions. Some go better than others, and I could probably write several thousand words on the subject of why that is. Ultimately though, any merger or acquisition is brutally difficult, alienates employees, and results in some people quitting. It's the nature of the experience.
5.30.2005 1:25pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
I forgot to mention that you should remember that Sydney Carton was an associate.
5.31.2005 3:06am
Split Lip Rayfield (mail):
The reason I left the big firm is cuz I got fired. Keep that in mind Tbag &others who speak of the "certainty" of the big firm. My mistake was not marketing myself enough within the firm. I highly recommend "Career Warfare". I think if I had read that book while I was at the large firm, I might not've gotten shitcanned.
5.31.2005 1:38pm