Biglaw is in trouble. When law students are wooed by law schools with promises of $160,000, Biglaw is the promised land that provides this bounty. But, the Biglaw of yesteryear is quickly receding into history. Partners are trying to keep their AmLaw profit per partner numbers up. Many corporate clients are now unwilling to underwrite Biglaw training for new associates at exorbitant prices. As a result, the industry is in a panic. Once venerated firms are folding or desperately pursuing mergers. "Stealth" layoffs are becoming a regular occurrence as partners try to protect their bottom line. Firms are embracing the move of "back office" operations to lower cost cities in flyover country. All of this frenzy is akin to a rhino staggering and struggling after having been shot by a hunter.
The dynamic within law firms is changing, and not for the better. Partnerships are now split between equity and non-equity partners, with the non-equity partners receiving those titles mostly to mollify them into continuing to work under oppressive conditions. For some lawyers, partnership is not even an option. "Staff attorneys" are now a permanent underclass in most firms, doing the scut work that associates and partners feel is beneath them. But Biglaw is no stranger to technological innovation. Document review software is growing increasingly sophisticated and starting to replace contract attorneys at a fraction of the cost. The document review projects that do remain are a race to the bottom, with lower and lower hourly rates as the newly minted attorneys compete with attorneys who have been out of law school anywhere from one to twenty years long. It is a sad state of affairs.
If law school is a scam, Biglaw is its older brother. Equity partners are operating the biggest Ponzi scam in existence today. They make millions of dollars while farming out the actual legal work to lowly associates. Witness the stories of Mayer Brown and Dewey LeBoeuf. In this excellent article, the venality of the partners is on full display. The genteel image of a group of partners sipping scotch and talking eruditely about the law is a far cry from what was going on at Dewey. Just like with the law schools chasing prestige through an improved US News ranking, Dewey wooed partners with multimillion dollar contracts. When the economy began to turn, they put the blinders on and doubled down. More superstar partners were brought in to burnish the firm's image. In the end, the firm went crashing and burning. All of the superstar partners simply packed up and moved on to their next firm, staying one step of the legal industry's destruction.
Law schools need to look at Dewey and make substantive changes to prevent a similar outcome. The student loan well is quickly drying up for some schools, as undergrads are beginning to see through the fog of law school marketing and the profession's self aggrandizing image. It is very likely that some law schools will begin failing in the next few years. People like Brian Leiter are lashing out at anyone willing to tell the truth, hoping against hope that they can impede the bleak future that awaits them in the new world order. The legal education complex is no longer the impenetrable fortress it once was. We have an opportunity to slay the dragon once and for all.