As anyone who’s worked at one will tell you, law firms are designed to push work downward and grow by doubling the number of staff for every associate, and adding an associate for every rainmaker. Firms can keep this up as long as those at the top generate business. As a result the classic law firm pyramid doesn’t “grow” so much as it expands in all directions at the base.
That wide base makes for a stable structure; not only that, but minions are notoriously good at billing, overstaffed offices make clients feel secure, law schools fawn over big firms, and the obscene profit margins prove that doing things this way is an absolute good.
In fact even auxiliary players favor this approach: from Westlaw and Lexis to office supply stores, everyone makes out when clients foot the bill. ‘But,’ you ask, ‘what about lawyer satisfaction … staff retention … client service?’ Grow up. Firms are too timid to change, billable hours punish efficiency, rainmakers would rather find cheap employees than leverage information; and the type of client that can afford such services is either cost insensitive or doesn’t know they’re being taken. Then again no-one ever got fired for hiring IBM, right? It’s win-win baby!
Ironically, the ones motivated to change the system are so buried in it that they’re rarely seen or heard from. But that may be changing thanks to the big 2.0 – Web 2.0, Law 2.0, whatever 2.0. The point is that applications like Digg, Flickr, Blogger, and Twitter could become the nimble alternatives to the standard bloatware spewing from Microsoft and IBM. If so then the Gen-Y users of these apps could very well level the playing field at many firms or just jumpish ship altogether. The result is that more and more the hierarchy of the firm is giving way to the mesh of relationships we might call the un-law firm.
Of course there is a wide gulf between theory and action, but real change could take place soon; and for all we know may already be happening. The question is, given the opportunity would we support these kinds of changes or resist them? To answer that question I refer back to my first year in business school when were were taught about the “Buggy Whip” industry at the outset of the 20th century.
It seems that when cars were introduced in the late 1800’s the companies that made carriages and whips laughed out loud. They had a track record going back to the golden age of Western civilization, while cars were loud, uncomfortable, complex, and quite frankly dangerous. Who would want one of those they reasoned? I guess we know how that one turned out.
Better still, e-mail me at mhedayat[at]mha-law.com with your thoughts.