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June 07, 2018


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There are a few other factors that you don't discuss.

One was the desire of large law firms (for a period) to periodically expand specialty practices such as intellectual property, bankruptcy, litigation (a lot of big-law partners had little actual trial experience), trade, etc., ERISA, antitrust. Because they did/do not have time to develop these practices organically, and lacked/lack the senior lawyers with the relevant skills, the BigLaw are/were forced to hire from outside their partnership tracks - either from boutiques, or from government (e.g., the USDOJ's antitrust division.) The interesting thing is that BigLaw goes through periods of cutting back on various specialties - e.g., in a strong economy they cut back on bankruptcy and trade (dumping and CVD) practices, some have stepped in and then out of serious IP practice, etc. which then leads to a need to rapidly rebuild those practices at a later date.

Another factor was the rise of what a partner I had described as micro-competence when we interviewed a 10th year Skadden cast-off a couple of decades ago. Despite sterling law school credentials, his problem was that he'd spent the last 8 years doing only responses to Hart-Scott-Rodino second requests. At that time, there were probably only two firms in the world that did HSR second requests frequently enough to be able to have a mid-level associate dedicated to the role (Skaddne being one.) We would not have been able to use him since he was, for most practical purposes a first year associate in terms of experience looking for a senior associate pay check (unless we had a HSR 2nd Request, which for us was once in years - and that was opposing the merger.) To put it in simple terms (and I was a GC) the only way that BigLaw could sell their associates hourly rates in the 90s and 00s was to make at least some of those associates extremely specialised - not simply antitrust, or even mergers, but HSR 2nd requests. This presents three sets of problems: (a) they end up lacking the general skills that one seeks in a partner/advisor; and (b) when they look for roles post-big law they have a troubling lack of the sort of general experience that other legal employers look for; and (c) when the specialised practices the mid level and senior associates are trained for slow, the axe tends to fall, on the associates, revenue partners and even equity partners, because it is cheaper than retraining them.

To all of this was added the changing relationship between clients and law firms/lawyers, in that clients ceased to be "firm clients" and more clients of a particular lawyer - or rainmaker. Wise rainmakers became extraordinarily jealous of their client relationships, because that was their pay check and their job security - and were very hesitant to allow more junior lawyers or other partners any contact with the client that they do not mediate in some way.

I don't see these factors changing in the medium term.

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