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The Value of Large Law Firms

Kermit Roosevelt

Kermit Roosevelt of the famous family teaches Constitutional law at the Penn Law School, writes books about the social scene, and dropped around for lunch at the Franklin Inn Club, recently. The discussion soon danced around a paradox; law students would almost kill to get accepted at one of the big law firms, but a substantial number of them say the big salaries cannot compensate for the pain inflicted on the lawyers. That isn't exactly the image the public has of them, so it seemed worth asking about.

In the first place, corporate legal clients almost always choose one of the big firms to represent them, so work at the big firms is mostly the work of big corporations. Big corporations pay big fees to the big firms, which they regard as prestige firms. On the other side, almost all the new hires at big law firms are drawn from about five prestige law schools. Finally, the nature of the young lawyers' complaint is that they are given scut-work to do, in large volume, under great time pressure. Scut work in their eyes seems to mean the reading of huge piles of documents in order to summarize them for other members of the law firm who are higher up the ladder. This scut work is so repetitive and boring that a great deal of it is being outsourced to India. Whatever goes on here? Why is so much money being paid to waste the time of our finest legal minds, graduates of our most competitive prestige institutions, when it could apparently be handled much more cheaply by unknowns who work five thousand miles away?

Let's look at the prestige law schools for a moment, asking what it is they provide their students that are so highly prized by everybody, in spite of the fact that it could mostly be supplanted by anonymous overseas drones? Here, we get two puzzlingly contradictory opinions. These law schools teach on a highly academic and theoretical level and almost never is there a faculty member who actively practices law. The consequence is that graduates of these schools almost invariably admit that they discover that almost nothing they were taught had any usefulness in their careers. That's not true among the scorned lower-tier law schools, who generally have large numbers of "adjunct" professors engaged in active law practice. The conclusion has to emerge from this that everything useful for the practice of corporate law is taught to the young graduates after they are hired, thus keeping the trade secrets proprietary, since the high salaries paid to restrain migration either to law schools or lowly competitors. And the migration is further restrained by the circumstance that these young titans of the law have really never learned how to practice the normal kind of law. That's accusatory, of course, and the people accused are very skillful in defending themselves, so let's just consider it a conjecture without evidence to support it.

Even on a speculative level, this conspiracy theory isn't completely satisfying. It does not address the puzzle why major corporations which rule the economic world would pay so much for what is difficult to justify qualitatively. They can afford it, perhaps, but they are not stupid. Mr. Roosevelt suggests that many important lawsuits will inevitably be lost since they are not all settled out of court. If a corporation loses a big suit, it needs to justify itself to its board, its customers, and maybe even its stockholders. The use of a prestige law firm to represent it confers at least the idea they did everything possible to win, and they lost to another law firm that is understandably well-paid, prestigious, and unusually skillful at winning. The management of the client corporation, in other words, is protecting itself.

Meanwhile, the big law firms are recruiting large numbers of junior employees from wealthy families and proven academic ability. If they survive the disagreeable vetting process, they may well be eligible to become either legal stars or big rainmakers. There's no guilt about running this gladiator fight because the pay is very good, indeed.

The lunch was concluded on a note of musing. This all may not be entirely right, but it probably isn't entirely wrong.

Originally published: Friday, May 02, 2008; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019