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ABA Journal Essay Submission – What can large law firms do to better the profession?

This was my submission for the 2011 ABA Journal Ross Essay Contest. The theme revolved around what “big law” can do to positively impact the practice of law.

On a daily basis, there are success stories in regard to client representation by solo practitioners, boutique and midsize law firms. At the same time, perusal of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times serve as reminders that most “bet the farm” situations still fall in the laps of the nation’s largest law firms.

As an attorney, I have had the opportunity to work with and interact with the “large law firm” from numerous vantage points. I’ve been the “client” as an in-house attorney. I’ve had the opportunity to watch colleagues as an adviser to friends and family. In recent years, I have worked with large law firms on business models and strategies. All of those experiences color my belief that they are uniquely positioned to have the greatest positively changing the practice of law.

With the most resources–intellectual, fiscal and physical–the large law firm is best positioned to take the temperature of the nation’s corporate clientele and respond with a model that addresses the ever-changing needs and priorities of the country. After all, it is those corporations that must shift gears in a similar fashion to respond to the people. The way these law firms will change the practice (for the better) is not through alterations in legal arguments. Briefs, trials, discovery and research may change procedurally through technology, but the outcomes won’t. Firms will tweak compensation structures, but those too will simply address internal needs.

One word describes the way that large law firms will be able to positively impact the practice of law over the next five years in ways that no other type of lawyer or law firm can…allocation. Where will that allocation or reallocation impact us in ways that better the practice?

Through increased pro bono – It is easy math to shift a swatch of billable hours to the less fortunate, the indigent, the person or people in need of the best lawyer representation possible without the means. Because more and better representation of those that could never afford the large law firm means better and fairer decisions. That seismic shift in representation equals an organic change in the outcomes, and the betterment of the legal profession.

Leaving the partnership – Any cursory review of a new GC, Judicial appointment or governmental post points right back to big law. In some cases, the former partner is motivated by money, but in many instances these moves are more about change in interests, lifestyle and an ability to focus on a different set of challenges. It is from these posts that philosophical and cultural changes can take hold in ways that law firm representation can’t. It is the allocation of successful practitioners to companies, courts and governmental agencies that allow for improvements in the law.

Diversity – Sponsorships and ads are nice. But those dollars don’t’ necessarily change anything. The true allocation of leadership roles and hiring of women and minorities creates the same trickle-down effect of the aforementioned areas in terms of addressing issues that improve the firm, the country, and the practice.

We hear repeatedly about corporations clamping down on fees or demanding alternate arrangements and how clients will no longer support the compensation. But if you take a really close look at who is hired, the matters, rates and profits, what you find is that not much has changed. A slight change in allocation won’t be all too visible either. But it will make the firm, the practice of law and the United States better places to call home.