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November 10, 2008

The big law firm curse: "An aggregation of narrow views.

Boom! Morrison nails it. Elefant names it.

Via Legal Blog Watch, and the alert eye of Ed. of Blawg Review, I read Rees Morrison's comprehensive and perceptive piece in the New York Law Journal about what larger law firms can and cannot do for clients.

My take: As a general rule, if you are that rare GC who doesn't know the terrain yet, and have no idea where else to turn, go to a big firm first. I can name 10 good ones I like between 500 and 3000 lawyers in five key practice areas that my firm and other boutiques conduct as well. Why not? The talent is there. It's still a good bet.

The Hitch: it's there somewhere--not throughout, and not in all areas--and you do have to find it.

On talent, both abroad and in the U.S., large law firms currently are a double-edged sword. They do have, and always will have talent; however, in recent years, they've diluted the gene pool on lateral hires in order to get bigger. So Ferraris, Jaguars, Chevy Aveos, pick-up trucks and rickshaws all run on the same track. And their offices in smaller cities abroad can be spotty, mediocre and even scary. (Do you really want "Borat" as your company's lawyer in, say, Eastern Europe?--because that is what you might get.)

Further, and as Morrison points out, there are in larger firms troublesome inflationary pressures on hours billed. Value questions. Forget about what the markets will bear; on a good day, first and second year associates are worth about -$50.00/hour, once you factor in what it takes to teach, guide and monitor them, and "remediate" their work.

An even bigger problem for WAC?, however, is what Morrison calls "deep specialization, but narrower perspective". Oddly, in the last year I have heard two in-house counsel mention this themselves about mega-firms: the lack of "broad-gauged" lawyers. These are leaders and facilitators who, in addition to a their own specialty, have an expansive frame of reference about the world, business, other practice areas, and how they all fit together. As Ari Gold would say, "Boom!" Morrison has nailed the biggest substantive large law firm problem. In her summary of Morrison article at LBW, Carolyn Elefant describes it the lack of "the ability to offer a broad perspective--only an aggregation of narrow views." Bravo, Morrison, and Elefant.

Posted by JD Hull at November 10, 2008 04:02 PM


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