What Ails the Large Law Firm? Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up


What Ails Big Law?” was written in the early summer of 2009, shortly after the completion of FutureFirm 1.0 — a “collaborative competition” in which teams of law firm partners, in-house lawyers, and junior associates competed with one another to create a law firm that would survive and thrive over the next 20 years. This essay reported the surprising results of the competition along with my own commentary on how these results could be used by BigLaw to adapt to changing times.

Upon completing the essay, however, I filed it away. Back in 2009, law firm leaders had too many emergencies on their hands to listen to the unsolicited advice of a legal academic. Although I thought my analysis had merit, the timing was wrong. A better course of action was to let events play out.

Nearly five years have past since FutureFirm 1.0. To our great relief, the fall-out from the 2008 credit crisis is behind us. To the surprise of some, the large law firm sector has come out the other side substantially intact. Headcounts are slightly up from 2008, and the most firms remain quite profitable. Yet, most law firm managers would probably agree with Bruce MacEwen’s sober conclusion that Growth is Dead.

I am circulating “What Ails BigLaw? Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up” because I think most large law firm lawyers would be interested in revisiting the crisis of 2008-2009. Since that time, many short- and medium-term strategies have been tried, and many were successful. But they were also short- or medium-term. Lawyers at many firms are ready to have a conversation about longer-term ideas. Politicians may long for a crisis to make change. Prolonged ruts, in contrast, appear to bring out the best in big firm lawyers.

With this brief prologue in place, it is my hope that “What Ails Big Law?” may be a useful and well-timed message.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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