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January 07, 2006

Is The Greatest American Lawyer Onto Something?

First, let me explain something.

I'm not only a full-time practicing lawyer but, in some respects, I'm a professional stereotype. From time to time, this combination may have stifled my ability to think clearly, logically or creatively. After college and law school, I worked a couple of times for the U.S. Congress. Then I was an associate and a partner in both the D.C. and Pennsylvania offices of a larger law firm than I am in now. Another way to describe the path: take your liberal arts degree and those happy old verities you learned to law school, suffer through it, take two years "off" after law school (clerkship, government, teaching), join a "good" firm, happily do research and other things a galley slave or bootlick would object to, and make partner. Now you are in, say, your mid-thirties, looking at 40, and you start asking yourself the eternal questions that normally occur to a 20-year-old. Who am I? What is reality? Just what goes on in Amsterdam's coffee shops? And should I join the Peace Corps?

Instead, I co-founded my own "law boutique", when that was a relatively new idea, focusing at first on complex litigation, energy and environmental law. And not knowing any better, we did exactly what people said we could not do: retain and service the same size and caliber of clients I represented in my old firm. It wasn't that we refused to "bottom feed"; we just didn't even know how to be a lawyers for most individuals and companies. Used to fancy problems, we wanted to keep solving them for higher-end clients. We liked that and knew how.

Still, since we formed our firm in the mid-1990s, I have clung to a conventional notion which mirrors my conventional path. Repeatedly, I've told anyone who would listen that--even though the Internet and related technologies were making it easier for smaller law firms to compete with mega-firms, and even if your lawyers and staff were the best--large privately-held and Fortune 500 clients would never, ever accept and regularly retain: (1) a law firm of one, two or three people, no matter how talented; or (2) a "virtual firm"--one without at least one if not two or three brick-and-mortar offices in strategic places across the country or world.

But now I am not so sure. One reason is some very thoughtful and provocative recent posts from The Greatest American Lawyer who, lately, has been on fire. And GAL is making me think that the Internet, new technologies, advances in the art of outsourcing and other forces rippling through the global markets may mean this: more and more, talent--not size--matters. GAL's posts are, here, here, here and here. I don't agree with every premise or word. But I am stunned others (including me) haven't openly asked these questions. Read GAL's posts. Try a new theory, if just for fun. Ask yourself why, for example, a talented lone lawyer with the right organizational skills and access to real talent can't compete with a Freshfields, Jones Day or Baker & McKenzie with their offices, clout, specialities, talent and depth all over the world.

Posted by JD Hull at January 7, 2006 05:28 PM


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