Biglaw: Respect is a Two-Way Street

Carolyn Elefant of  MyShingle fame takes me to task for undermining her 5 years of effort to show Biglaw that solo practitioners aren’t losers.

[W]hy are you so down on large firm lawyers? I’ve spent the past five years at MyShingle trying to fight against Biglaw attorneys’ stereotyped view of solos as hapless losers who couldn’t find a job. If we solos want to be treated with respect, then we should lead by example, and not engage in stereotyping or name calling large firm lawyers either. In my experience, there’s good and bad in every segment of the profession.

My initial reaction was “who cares” what Biglaw thinks.  But when Carolyn writes something, it’s worth thinking about.  So I did.

It dawned on me that this is really a two-part problem.  The relationship between Biglaw and solos is different for criminal defense lawyers than it is for civil lawyers.  Criminal defense lawyers are almost always small firm or solo lawyers.  Yes, Biglaw always has a couple of former AUSAs who are there to show accused CEOs how to find their way into jail cells, but they aren’t really criminal defense lawyers.  They are part of the “full service” law firm show that Biglaw can afford to put on.  Some firms also have their Biglaw partners doing some real criminal defense stuff under the Criminal Justice Act to prove their commitment to the Constitution.  Admirable, but still not the same as they aren’t taking calls from street guys who need an abogado.

Civil practice is different, especially civil litigation.  They do engage Biglaw in the daily course of their work, and they do care that Biglaw looks down on them like “hapless losers,” as Carolyn elegantly puts it.  Indeed, the Biglaw strategy when the Goliaths are litigating against the Davids is to paper them to death, the theory being that by dumping on the solos, volume always prevails.  Not only is this strategy cynical, but it’s effective.  Biglaw clients have deep pockets.  Solo’s clients only have the facts and law on their side, and we all know how little that’s worth.

Contrary to belief, this is not a failure to communicate.  It’s a clash of cultures.  Biglaw needs to believe that it reflects the virtues of the higher order of professionalism, or else it would be impossible to get all those people to forfeit their lives for a paycheck.  Solos believe that they are every bit as competent and professional, lacking only the deep-pocketed clients to finance a scorched earth strategy. 

So is Carolyn right, that my denigrating some of the Biglaw sacred cows harms the cause of solos?  Well, I refuse to yield on the subject of paying associates outrageous salaries and bonuses in the quest of corralling the next big rainmaker.  But she may have something when she argues that there is good and bad in every segment of the profession.  After all, I post generically, and it would be too long and boring to run through every lawyer in New York to discuss the personal virtues of each.  Not that I would even know anything about them.

But I find Carolyn persuasive that my harping on Biglaw’s negatives does little to bring the profession together.  Given how all of us are viewed as societal pariahs, the profession would certainly benefit from a little greater cohesiveness, and perhaps even some thoughtful cooperation to start trying to avoid the knee-jerk antagonistic reactions to all disputes.  Hey, we might even get real people to start believing that lawyers can be useful instead of an instrument of misery.  Some of us actually think that we can help people, if we can just be a little more reasonable.

But I respond to Carolyn’s challenge with one of my own.  Respect is a two-way street.  Why is it that we, the small firms and solos that make up the bulk of the legal profession, should go to Biglaw on bended knee and ask for their approval? 

It seems that this view betrays a bias that, perhaps, Biglaw really is better, and so we must go to them, hat in hand.  At minimum, it suggests that we need them more than they need us.  After all, there aren’t too many Biglaw blawgs trying to foster respect with solos.

Carolyn’s blawg is dedicated to the proposition that small and solo practice offers a viable alternative to the high-pressure, endless hours and serf-like treatment of lawyers in Biglaw.  She provides a roadmap to success and happiness for the solo practitioner, including achieving financial success through the marketing of one’s legal services, when they hang out their shingle.  To do this, Carolyn has to get Biglaw folks to get over their bias against solos, since nobody wants to be one of those “hapless losers” who can’t get hired by, or cut it in, Biglaw.

Carolyn offers a huge service to that segment of the bar.  In fact, I doubt they deserve her help.  While solos have their issues too, few of us regret our choice (and for many it was indeed a choice) to eschew Biglaw for a life where we control our time and fate.  But in deference to her efforts, I will do my utmost to tone down any perceived denigration of Biglaw and foster a more cooperative spirit.  And I’ll sit here and wait for them to do the same. 

If they are as smart as they think they are, they will worry less about what a hapless solo like me has to say and spend more time over at  MyShingle learning that solos can be every bit as professional, intelligent and effective as Biglaw, but that we get to enjoy a lifestyle that they can only dream about.

Addendum:  I just got word that Thacher Proffitt & Wood has announced that they were laying off 50 associates.  In keeping my promise to Carolyn to be kinder and gentler to Biglaw, let me say I feel your pain