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The Myth of BigLaw Quality


3 vulturesBigLaw has a Big Problem.  Really Big.  Big Big. Pull the plug Big. End of an era Big.  Okay, enough already, we get it. Just tell us what the problem is.  Sure.  It’s simple really, but oh-so-unsolvable. Ready? BigLaw can’t compete on price.  A five word death sentence.

The Golden Era of BigLaw is el finito.  The cat is out of the bag. Informed clients now know (and this news is spreading exponentially) that the lion’s share of BigLaw work can be, and currently is, being competently done by NewLaw for $60 an hour or less.  There’s no amount of secretary buy-outs, back office outsourcing, summer associate program cutting, or partner de-equitizing that will get BigLaw’s billing rate anywhere near that “new normal” market rate.

Start building the gallows and find me some rope, because if you can’t compete on price, the party is over, right?  One would think, but let’s not forget who we are dealing with.  Burying BigLaw is harder than trying to get my wife’s cat into the crate for her annual vet visit.  The old coots just won’t give up!  Heck, I wouldn’t either if I had a bunch of Fortune 50’s writing me open-ended blank checks to keep my armies of associates churning away.  Who’s gonna willingly walk away from that money tree?

So, if you can’t compete on price, you’re left with your old tried-and-true trump card (trumpets blaring) QUALITY! (voice-over by James Earl Jones).  The standard pitch invariably goes like this:

  • The best we can do is a blended rate of $650 per hour (after discounting our inflated rack rates to make you feel like we care), but our work is of clearly of superior QUALITY compared to that of our competition, who use a bunch of non-Ivy League lawyers, or worse yet <wink-wink>,  foreigners for their work.  Heck, some of these law factories might even be using non-lawyers (!) on some of their projects.  What else can we say, you get what you pay for.

Dang. Maybe we all got a little overexcited with this New Normal Coronation Ball.  Maybe Law is different than the rest of the world, maybe only BigLaw can do all this important stuff, and we’ll just have to suck it up when we get those sphincter-puckering bills.  Sure, we can keep the C-suite off our back by handing out some non-essential work to a couple of these cheap shops, but we better keep the important stuff with the guys who provide QUALITY, no matter what the cost.

Deal.  But before we hand over the keys to the company coffers, it couldn’t hurt to take a look at the objective proof BigLaw has for substantiating their QUALITY claim.  No problem, this should be a piece of cake.

Great!  Let’s start with the AmLaw 100 rankings?  What better way to prove QUALITY than key metrics like gross revenue, revenue per lawyer, and profits per partner.  Wait, I’m a little confused here.  How do metrics focused on law firms’ bottom lines, rather than any outcome or value provided to clients, have any reflection on quality?  It seems that these metrics actually measure how successful firms are at maximizing hourly billing, rather than meeting their clients’ needs.  I get it.  The firms that turn the screws the hardest on billable hours deliver the best QUALITY to the client?  Big means best?  Under this theory, Walmart would clearly be the highest quality retailer.  Tough luck, Nordstrom’s and Bloomingdale’s.

Perhaps then, it’s that BigLaw attracts and develops only the “best of the best” talent?  Yet, there is almost universal agreement that the first few years of BigLaw lawyering is occupied by incredibly long hours on the most mundane and mind-numbing of tasks.  Very few young BigLaw associates ever get near meaningful work or a plum assignment.  Most leave from exhaustion before ever gaining any real lawyering experience.  Do we really need summa cum laude Harvard Law grads on due diligence and document review? Does mundane work magically become QUALITY work when billed out at $300-800 per hour.  Even if you buy into this elitist blather, how then does BigLaw differentiate itself from many of the New Law providers that are run by, and staffed with, those same Harvard Law and Stanford Law grads? Must be that those newbies had poor GPA’s and graduated near the bottom of their class?  Or maybe they could only get into lower-ranked law schools, like Michigan State or UCLA.  Slackers.  We all know that Ivy League credentials and high GPA are prerequisites to QUALITY; how else can you explain the genius of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and my personal favorite, Abe Lincoln.  Oops, the first two never graduated and the latter two never went to college.  If these four went into law, they couldn’t sniff a BigLaw job.  The rest are screwed.  Book a ticket to India and hope for the best.  Maybe Gates, having Harvard on his resume, could get a job at a regional firm back in Boston.  So much for the “best of the best.”

But . . . then . . . uh . . . what objective proof is there to back BigLaw’s boast that only it can deliver QUALITY?

There isn’t any.  Zip.  Nada.  Zero.  Or as Daniel Katz, professor at MSU and co-founder of ReInvent Law, summed it up here:

To say that our ability to assess the quality of a lawyer is noisy is the understatement of the century.  We have very fuzzy notions of who’s good and who’s bad.  If you can’t choose on that point, other factors become your point of differentiation, and a lot of times they’re much easier to detect.

Those other factors include better technology and well-designed processes.  Hmmm, who does those better, NewLaw or BigLaw?

Let’s see.  BigLaw gets smoked on technology and process.  It gets blown away on cost. It has no objective proof that it provides better quality.  For exactly how much longer can BigLaw count on BigClient to keep paying a huge premium for it’s “fuzzy notion” that it does higher quality work than NewLaw?

My answer.  Not much longer. The bread and butter of their dizzying success – hordes of leveraged associates grinding away on grunt work at premium prices – is a thing of the past.  Their last bastion – truly high level work  – keeps getting chipped away at with every success racked up by the NewLaw providers.

Yep, BigLaw, those buzzards eyeing you and your clients aren’t mirages, they’re your real NewLaw competition, and more and more of them are on the way.

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