The Financial Times has published an article with this title (£). It’s a bit of a strange piece, and a number of the commenters agree.

The gist of the piece is that unless big law firms change their ways of working–long hours, lack of promotion prospects, especially for women–they are doomed. Their hegemony is no longer assured because upstarts can overcome barriers to entry and poach white shoe work. The example given is Kirkland & Ellis from Chicago taking over private equity work. So excuse the cliché, a swallow does not summer make…

While the upper echelons of big law seem to have been there for evermore a study of history shows otherwise. Yes some firms like Freshfields have been around a couple of hundred years but Allen & Overy came into being in the 1930s, and Baker & McKenzie was a positive late starter in the 1950s. And I haven’t even mentioned Skadden Arps and Wachtell Lipton. So is it a surprise that Kirkland has targeted a field of work and made a strong incursion.

It is further interesting because, according to the FT article on Kirkland’s success, says it succeeded by ousting Latham & Watkins, which is another relative newcomer coming out of Los Angeles. So maybe a possible different interpretation on this is whether New York is holding its lead in the world rankings of law firms. The crucial element that makes New York important is that it is where the major investment banks are based.

Law firm + investment bank is a combination that is hard to beat. Of all the firms I’ve mentioned in this post, Freshfields, A&O, Wachtell, it’s their connection to banks that makes them superior to other practices. We’d have to include Sullivan, Cravath, and Slaughter & May as well.

So the criteria for success are bases in New York and/or London and a bank in your pocket. By all means compete for private equity, hedge funds, new tech, but they don’t have quite the permanence and solidity of banking. I have made this argument many times before and throughout my academic career I’ve seen little to contradict it. The top cadre of global law firms are secure. They don’t have to do more for less. They don’t have to automate. They pretty much have to continue as they have done.

This doesn’t mean having policies that make it hard for women or minorities to succeed are acceptable. Or work practices that promote divorce, depression or suicide. No, these are unacceptable in the 21st century. Nor do they promote efficiencies and better profits (PEP). In fact, changing these practices would probably improve all the metrics by which law firms measure themselves.

Troglodytes and dinosaurs have no place in the modern global law firm. With different regulatory frameworks we will see the traditional practices transform into something other than the traditional partnership. The organisation is under immense strain when a firm has over 7,000 lawyers. The notion of partnership is strained, to say the least. We may have instead corporate forms with more transparent finances and remuneration. Proper equity too. This is in the future.

The Financial Times called this one incorrectly because it thinks modernity and neo-liberalism necessarily trump tradition and history. That’s not right. Cultures built up over time are hard to destroy so forms persist and endure. It’s not merely the economics of the organisation, rather an anthropological view gives a much better perspective. Anthropologically, the legal profession has a very strong cultural patterning that does eventually respond to change and external pressures, but more at its own pace rather than that determined by others.

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