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Research Monograph
the Large
Law Firm?
Will the Real FutureFirm
Please Stand Up
Bill Henderson | April 2014
Professor Bill Henderson | 1
"We always overestimate the change that will occur
in the next two years and underestimate the change
that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself
be lulled into inaction."
-- Bill Gates, 1996
2 | 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
With this brief prologue in place, it is my hope that “What Ails Big Law?”
may be a useful and well-timed message.
William D. Henderson
Professor of Law
Indiana University Maurer School of Law
Professor Bill Henderson | 3
On April 17-19, 2009, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law hosted
FutureFirm 1.0, a “collaborative competition” in which law firm partners,
in-house lawyers, law firm associates, and students worked together to forge
a business model that will enable firms “to survive and thrive over the next
20 years.” At stake was $15,000 in prize money (supplied by Hildebrandt
Consulting) and the glory of being crowned a certified thought leader. The
formula for the event was simple: pit lawyers’ competitiveness against their
deeply held skepticism and risk aversion—ah, something would have to give.
As one of the organizers of FutureFirm 1.0, I had the enviable role of being a
passive observer to dozens of candid conversations among stakeholders.
This essay summarizes some of the thoughts and observations that emerged
from FutureFirm 1.0, including—with the benefit of additional reflection—
my own impressions of what ails BigLaw.
To avoid unnecessary suspension, I will offer my bottom line right out of
the gate. The big problem faced by today’s large corporate law firms is too
many decades of uninterrupted success. Large firm lawyers reap large
financial re-wards by operating a very conservative time-and-materials
business model. This model assumed (1) that the firm’s elite brand would
always command premium rates, (2) that the demand for elite law
graduates would never exceed the supply, and (3) that the firm could grow
forever with no diminution in the willingness of partners to share risk in a
way that would strengthen (or at least support) the long-term interests of
the firm.
Now that these assumptions have fallen one after another, many large firms
are in the uncomfortable position of needing to innovate when the pressure
is on. Innovation is hard to do under the best of circumstances; imagine attempting innovation for the first time among well-heeled lawyers who have
short attention spans and widely divergent time horizons.
The real problem presented in FutureFirm was not one of strategy—all the
teams broke from the status quo, but they did so in very similar ways, suggesting the best strategies were relatively obvious. Yet, these strategies were
going unused because the status quo had worked so well for so long. Unlike
a corporation where shareholders who disagree with management can just
sell their shares and exit, a law partnership needs the owners to show up on
Monday morning to service the firm’s clients. Convincing the partnership to
do just that is a change management problem of epic proportions. As a result,
a huge number of lawyers are locked into a business structure that, despite its
4 | Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up
illustrious past, is ill-equipped to adapt to the future. Moreover, clients are
also deprived of beneficial changes—which makes U.S. law firms susceptible
to non-BigLaw competitors both domestically and abroad.
My “too-much-success” theory requires some context. So let me start with the
basic set-up of FutureFirm 1.0.
FutureFirm 1.0
The FutureFirm competition consisted of forty players divided into four
teams of ten: four partners, three in-house lawyers, and three students/law
firm associates. In addition, each team had the benefit of one Hildebrandt
consultant. The goal of the competition was to articulate, through two rounds
of competition, a new law firm that had the best chance of surviving and
thriving over the next 20 years. The task of selecting a winner was given to a
panel of 14 judges comprised of law firm partners, an in-house lawyer, a major malpractice insurer, legal academics who specialize in the legal profession,
and a Gen Y lawyer. See FutureFirm 1.0 organizing memo (note we slightly
modified the rules as we learned more about how the teams responded to the
game’s incentives).
To fully tap into the real-world perspective of each participant while shedding any pretense that anyone was speaking on behalf of his or her law firm
or corporate employer, we organized the game around the law firm of Marbury & Madison LLP (M&M), a fictional Am Law 200 firm in the midst
of an identity crisis. See FutureFirm 1.0 fact pattern. Specifically, there is
a disconnect between the firm’s self-image—elite, white-shoe, collegial, collaborative—and hard market evidence. A full description is contained in the
detailed game problem, but here are some of the key facts:
• Size and Geographic Spread. M&M has 335 lawyers spread across
offices in Chicago (the HQ office), Washington DC, San Francisco,
and a middle-market city.
• Firm Structure and Financials. In the 2008 Am Law league tables,
M&M ranked #123 in total revenue ($210 million) and #138 in profits per partner ($675,000). Despite its shift to a two-tier structure a
few years ago, M&M is relatively low leverage (135 equity partners; 15
non-equity; 185 associates).
Professor Bill Henderson | 5
• Governance. M&M is governed by a twelve member Executive Committee and a Managing Partner who possesses—by design—little significant authority.
• Practice Areas. M&M owes its stature to insurance defense/coverage
litigation plus corporate, labor & employment, and regulatory compliance work for various legacy industries (steel, automotive, airlines).
In recent years, however, the firm has established a respected, and
profitable, intellectual property practice.
• Associates. The firm gets decent Am Law Midlevel Associates ratings
for “training and guidance,” “levels of responsibility,” and “attitudes
toward pro bono,” but is below average on “billable hours policy,”
“family-friendly environment,” “communication toward partnership,”
and “attitudes toward diversity.” Associate attrition has been roughly
17% annually for the last few years, though the rates are higher for
female and minority lawyers.
• Clients. The partners are more impressed with the firm than the clients. According to an industry-wide survey, M&M partners believe
they are doing an exemplary job 67% of the time, versus 42% in the
eyes of their clients.
• Lateral Movement. In recent years, some heavy-hitter partners have
decamped for larger and more profitable cross-town rivals.
The basic concept of the game is that the M&M Executive Committee has
formed an ad hoc FutureFirm Task Force to evaluate the firm’s business model. To avoid a partner echo chamber, the Task Force is asked to collaborate
with M&M associates and in-house lawyers employed by some of M&M’s
key clients.
Granted, when Anthony Kearns and I dreamed up the concept for FutureFirm 1.0 in the fall of 2008, we knew that the BigLaw market was heading
into a recession. But what we failed to fully anticipate was the depth of the
financial problems. Thus, when the game rules stipulated that “the efforts of
the Task Force are taking place in real time – i.e., April of 2009,” we tapped
into a sense of urgency and impatience that would have been virtually impossible to create with a hypothetical fact pattern. Thus, in keeping with other
6 | Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up
market trends, M&M recently laid off 45 staffers and deferred the start dates
of the incoming class of associates (35 total).
M&M’s financial prospects are very similar to other Am Law 200 firms. Although M&M profits per partner were down a mere 4% in 2008, the fiscal
year ended in September. For fiscal year 2009, firm revenues and hours billed
are down 10% year-to-date. On the transactional side, the number is down
a disturbing 17%. The Executive Committee is daunted by the prospect of
having to allocate the spoils of a shrinking economic pie—stealth associates
layoffs and partner de-equitizations are short-term fixes with long-term collateral effects. Moreover, it may be impossible to wring out enough savings to
keep the firm’s most important rainmakers.
To get the real world flavor of FutureFirm, it is worth discussing the background of the players and judges. Participants included law firm partners
from several major markets (San Francisco, Chicago, New York, London,
Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland). Their
firms ranged from high-end boutiques started by former BigLaw partners to
firms in the Am Law 25. In-house participants came from a wide array of client lawyers, including the CEO of a large privately held company, a venture
capitalist, and senior lawyers and deputy general counsel from several Fortune
500 corporations. Finally, each team had one law firm associate from an Am
Law 200 law firm and two law students who had previously worked as a summer associate. The students/law firm associates were drawn from several law
schools (Indiana, UC Berkeley, Georgetown, USC, and Columbia).
The competition took place over two rounds. During Round 1, which lasted
all day Saturday, participants formulated a business model which was presented during a late afternoon plenary session. Each team had 15 minutes
of presentation followed by 15 minutes of questions from the judging panel. During Round 2, which took place Sunday morning, each team had 15
minutes to present the key features of their model along with any changes
or refinements from Round 1. Thereafter, the judges deliberated while the
participants enjoyed a well-deserved brunch in the stately Tudor Room in the
Indiana University Memorial Union.
Professor Bill Henderson | 7
II. Key Results
Despite the fact that all four teams worked in isolation, the common themes
were striking. The umbrella theme tying together all the presentations was
“client focused”—which is no surprise since (a) the clients were in the room,
and (b) the whole enterprise depends upon their greater legal spend. But the
specific deal points were often quite similar and inevitably included the scuttling of the billable hour, customized alternative billing strategies, new data
collection systems, greater information sharing with clients, and intensive associate training (e.g., secondments with clients).
To make the changes cost effective, associates on all four teams traded in
M&M’s $160K associate cost structure (proposed starting salaries were in
the $80,000 to $125,000 range). In exchange, partners agreed to concessions that enhanced the associates’ long-term prospects with the firm—e.g.,
a three-year employment contract, shortened partnership track, a return to a
single-tier partnership, generous profit-sharing, a business development budget, and deferred compensation program designed to payoff law school loans.
Interestingly, all four teams indicated that they were willing to forgo elite law
school credentials in order to hire graduates who could be cost-effectively
trained. And student players from elite law schools made a convincing case
that the new model offered them a much more attractive value proposition
than a $160K model that offers neither training nor security nor a healthy
firm culture.
Another theme touched on by the teams was a realization that M&M could
not be all things for all clients. One team committed itself to winnowing its
client base in favor of its largest clients, thus reducing the likelihood of losing
desirable work due to irresolvable conflicts of interest. To escape the relentless
cost-cutting efforts of general counsel from major corporations, another team
decided to focus on the underserved middle market, where M&M lawyers
could serve as trusted advisors and develop long-term relationship with business owners. A third team was going to distinguish itself through a very lean
cost structure and a single relationship manager who would be directly accountable to GC’s to deliver high quality cost-effective results. This so-called
“throat to choke” would ensure the development of an institutional memory
that could eventually achieve Six Sigma performance.
To my mind, it is all-too-easy to draw the wrong conclusions from Future-
8 | Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up
Firm. For many critics, the FutureFirm models did not go far enough—indeed, several interested observers suggested that FutureFirm should have been
a “clean-sheet” exercise rather than case competition stifled by baggage of a
hypothetical firm.
Yet, here is the rub: during FutureFirm 1.0, our players were constrained by a
very realistic set of facts that essentially mimicked the model Am Law 200. In
turn, four teams of stakeholders converged on several key changes to the business model—billing practices, pay structure, training, client relations. Yet, as
the participants weighed the likelihood that the hypothetical M&M partnership would sign onto these (relatively obvious, sensible) changes, many
worried that such a conversation would precipitate a Heller-esque death spiral. Several FutureFirm partners concluded that it was better to pull the plug
on Marbury & Madison LLP rather than live another day pretending that a
collection of warlord partners with large portable books could provide the
nucleus of a truly healthy and vibrant law firm.
So the real takeaway of FutureFirm 1.0 is not some genius insight that will
transform the marketplace. Rather, it is more fully appreciating the profound
structural constraints that impede the most basic and necessary changes to
the BigLaw model. This is the type of market failure that would ordinarily
warrant intervention by a regulator. Yet, this authority is scattered among the
judicial and legislative branches of fifty states and the District of Columbia.
Arguably, the best hope for significant change is a rash of large law firm failures, which would give rise to new law firms that can rewrite the rules for the
benefit of clients and the next generation of lawyers.
III. What Ails BigLaw?
BigLaw is plagued by several structural problems. Its most serious impediments, however, are not these structural problems per se, but the settled
expectations and dulled imagination produced by several decades of large
profits and high prestige. Why change how you do business when a riskless
time-and-materials model has worked so well? Similar to the effects of family
money and the second and third generation offspring or an industry giant
(like, say, General Motors) with the huge proportion of a large and lucrative market, too much uninterrupted success and comfort can breed insular
thinking and a lack of proportion. In my observation, lawyers with elite educational credentials too often believe that their high incomes are the result of
Professor Bill Henderson | 9
their skill and achievements rather than a hierarchical regional and national
guild system, albeit one that is gradually losing its market power.
Unfortunately, it has been at least three generations since partners at most
major corporate law firms have had to think like ordinary business people—
controlling costs, taking risks, investing profits back in the business, etc. Note
that I am not assigning blame—it is quite rational to gravitate toward opportunities where the rewards are relatively high and risks are relatively low. But
a large second-order effect of huge, uninterrupted success is pride, complacency, and loss of objectivity.
As for the structural problems, they go much deeper than issues of ego or
business acumen. The first issue pertains to the changes in the supply and
demand for corporate legal services. On the demand side, the clients with
the largest legal spend are transnational entities within a globalized economy.
Over time, their legal needs have steadily increased in volume, breadth, and
complexity. For decades, this steady rise in demand fully propped up the supply side, enabling law firms to continue to utilize the traditional promotion
to partner tournament model, adding two or three associates for every lawyer
who made partner.
Over time, the typical large law firm became much larger. Between 1979 and
2008, the average firm in the NLJ 250 increased from 102 to 535 lawyers
(+525%), while the size of the partnership swelled from 45 partners to 213
(423%). Similarly, the average number of offices per firm has swelled from
2.5 to 10.2. The typical NLJ 250 firm now has 65 lawyers working foreign
countries compared to two in 1979. Sharing risk with 45 partners, most of
whom you see on a daily basis, is very different from sharing risk with 213
partners dispersed throughout the globe, many of whom you have never met.
Moreover, in many firms, over 50 percent of the partners entered the firm
laterally. See 2008 Hildebrandt study. The overall average in the NLJ 250 is
about 33 percent. If there is such a thing as firm culture, it is unlikely to be
enhanced by high rates of partner mobility. Thus, money, rather than shared
firm history and values, becomes the primary glue holding the firm together.
The structural changes on the client side are equally dramatic. The enormous
growth of transnational corporations has given rise to a highly bureaucratized
in-house legal department in which the general counsel, rather than the outside counsel, has taken on the coveted role of being “trusted advisors” to the
C-suite executives who run the company.
10 | Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up
The rise of the modern general counsel (or chief legal counsel) is characterized
by two trends that are moving in two diametrically opposed directions. First,
legal services are increasingly viewed as one more variable cost that can be
controlled when stretched with modern management techniques, including
sophisticated metrics applied to all outside vendors. And if the legal department goes over budget, the top in-house lawyers are likely to take a hit on
their bonus. Second, the cost-cutting has its limits. If a general counsel has
to inform the board of directors of an adverse legal outcome that affects the
fortunes of the company, his judgment is less assailable if he can say that he
hired the best lawyer from the best firm. In other words, BigLaw grew, in
part, because of garden variety agency costs. Cf. Bruce MacEwen, Nobody
Ever Got Fired for Hiring Skadden, Adam Smith Esq. Blog, April 21, 2004.
Not surprisingly, over the last several years, the Am Law 50 firms have leveraged their “brand” and gradually pulled away from the rest of the large
law firm universe. Much of this growth has been achieved through lateral
recruitment, with well-heeled partners from the Am Law 51 to 200 moving
upstream in search of a “larger platform.” See Henderson & Bierman, An
Empirical Analysis of Lateral Lawyer Trends from 2000 to 2007.
As legal strategy became the providence of general counsel, institutional relationships between clients and firms steadily eroded. Being a brand firm did
not mean that clients were loyal to the firm; rather, it meant that the firm was
more credible when pitching business. Legal spend was increasingly allocated
through a transaction-based approach that focused on a combination of cost
and quality--i.e., a “brand” provided by the individual lawyer, the firm, or
With law firms having less sway on client’s decision-making, longstanding
referral networks among regional firms began to collapse. Thirty years ago,
all large firms except Baker & McKenzie were regional. Under the old “best
friends” system, firms could refer clients to out-of-town firms without fear of
losing their core business relationship. As general counsel showed a willingness to fire and hire new outside counsel, rather than give their competition
an opportunity to get their foot in the door, firms began to expand geographically to keep pace with their clients’ geographic footprint. Not surprisingly,
the staffing of satellite offices is often accomplished by raiding the partnership
ranks of the established firms within a regional market. Although the market
for lateral talent is often cast as national or global in scope, over 96% of all
partner lateral movement occurs between offices within the same metropol-
Professor Bill Henderson | 11
itan area. In others words, the competition may look global, but it is experienced in a very local and personal way.
In a recent study of large law firm economic geography, Art Alderson (Indiana Sociology) and I used network analysis and block modeling techniques
to categorize various branch office configurations. See The Changing Economic
Geography of Law U.S. Law Firms. We were stunned that 117 of the NLJ 250
had functionally equivalent geographic platforms, with offices in New York,
DC, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, London and sundry branch offices in the
Sunbelt and/or the Pacific Rim. 117 firms is a lot of competition in some
very high-cost markets. Thirty years ago, these future Am Law 200 firms divided up industrial, banking, and insurance clients among a few rivals within
a comfortable regional guild. Now these same firms have grown into each
others’ backyards, each with massive capacity, high fixed costs, and a strategic
plan of getting more of that lucrative, price-insensitive work. When the capital markets froze up in late 2008 and clients collectively tightened their legal
budgets, the BigLaw business model that operated on autopilot for nearly a
century finally hit a wall.
Although there is a lot of discussion about law firms adopting a more “corporate” management structure, the lines of authority on an organizational chart
should not be confused with actual control over the firm. The true power
resides with powerful rainmaking partners. If they decide to leave, law firm
managers lose revenues but very few fixed costs. In turn, the shrinking profit
pie can touch off a second wave of defections. And, God forbid, a third. To
stave off disaster, law firm managers increasingly focus on the lateral market,
since these are the folks who can bring in the required revenues. With the
thinning of firm cultures due to firm size and geographic dispersion, the decision to stay or go increasingly turns on money. (Marc Galanter and I analyze
this shift in our Elastic Tournament article.)
So my bottom line is that the common themes that emerged from FutureFirm 1.0 make an enormous amount of business sense—four teams of highly
motivated lawyers all converged on several similar innovations. Unfortunately, they are destined to be ignored by BigLaw managers because the premise
of the game—to create a law firm that will “survive and thrive over the next
20 years”—is incompatible with the time horizons of rainmaking partners.
Am I exaggerating? Check out Jason Fagone’s terrific article on the final days
of Wolf Block, which revealed the lack of trust among the top fifteen rainmakers of the firm. Essentially, these lawyers asked themselves if they could all
12 | Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up
be counted on to stay with the firm in the years to come. Despite their professed affection for one another, they doubted their collective willingness to
stay the course. Thus, dissolution became the only sensible course of action.
See “Wrongful Death,” Philadelphia Magazine, June 2, 2009.
The difficult coordination problem of getting rainmakers to commit to the
long term is compounded by ethics rules that bar non-compete agreements
and ownership interests by non-lawyers. If lawyer non-compete agreements
were enforceable, rainmakers could collectively bond themselves to the firm,
thus making it safer for all partners to invest their time and money into strategies that would pay off over the medium to long term.
Likewise, the time horizons of partners could be dramatically increased by
outside investors. Why do law firms need access to non-lawyer capital? Specifically, the funds are needed to guarantee partner incomes for a period of
years as the firm invests in capital-intensive human resource systems, business
processes, knowledge management, and alternative pricing models. In fact,
talented equity partners could make even more money if it were willing to
undertake some risky but quite promising innovations.
For a firm like Marbury & Madison LLP (150 partners and 185 associates),
the capital needed might be hundreds of millions of dollars. A lot of money,
but the purpose of the funds is to reduce the opportunity cost of highly accomplished lawyers who have the market credibility to warrantee the quality
of the legal work—a critical link toward acceptance of a new delivery model.
If the partners were guaranteed their incomes, they would probably be willing
to split the higher profits with their private equity guarantors. This is Capitalism 101.1 Further, if the innovations enable the firm to build a substantial
and lucrative niche, the upside could be quite large, at least for the early
adopters. More significantly, this process could spark a new era of “firm-specific capital”—i.e., the value created is specific to the firm rather than mobile
partners who can take it with them to a crosstown rival. Firm-specific capital
creates market power, and market power provides lawyers with everything
they want: money, reputation, and the ability to pursue non-economic objectives, such as take long, uninterrupted family vacations, offer sabbaticals for
partners, and take-on important pro bono work, etc. In their heart of hearts,
I believe that most BigLaw lawyers want to work for a firm with firm-specific
Since the UK and Australia have recently permitted non-lawyer investment in law firms, we will see all of this play out globally in the next few years. In
the meantime, the US will be at a competitive disadvantage.
Professor Bill Henderson | 13
Over the last several years, I have analyzed a lot of data on the BigLaw sector.
But frankly, my greatest insights come not from multivariate regression or
network analysis, but listening, and trying to reconcile, the ideas, values, and
impressions of three generations of lawyers—my students, practicing lawyers
and law firm managers, and recently retired large law firm partners. Through
these many conversations, I am left with the overwhelming impression that
the “traditional” large law firm law model no longer fits the desires or preferences of the majority of stakeholders—young lawyers, equity partners, or
Although equity partners make more money, they enjoy little long-term security and work longer hours than virtually anyone in the firm. I know that
law firm partners are shocked, truly shocked, by this statement, but the vast
majority of law firm associates and law students—particularly those from
elite law schools—do not envy the life of the equity law firm partner. BigLaw
is a place to pay down debt and build the résumé for a better opportunity that
will materialize at some point in the future. It is my observation, however,
that these “better opportunities” are often nebulous and ill-defined concepts.
Young lawyers and law students more readily identify what they don’t want.
In the case of BigLaw, it is the long hours and lack of autonomy without the
benefit of intrinsically interesting work or a sense that they are valued by their
Because so many law students and recent law graduates are so tentative on
their commitments to life in BigLaw, it is remarkable that firms have nonetheless engaged in a salary bidding war for their services. See “How the Cravath Model Produced the Bi-Modal Distribution,” Legal Professions Blog,
July 18, 2008. Granted, the majority of these associates went to elite national
law schools, which satisfies pedigree requirements of the traditional hiring
model. But only a small percentage of these young lawyers actually wanted to build their careers in these practice settings, a finding overwhelmingly
corroborated by the second wave of research coming out of the After the JD
Study. See, e.g., Dinovitzer & Garth, “Not That Into You,” The American
Lawyer, Sept. 2009. After paying too much for entry-level talent that was
not fully committed to the enterprise, firms tried to pass the $160K+ cost
14 | Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up
structure on to their clients. Is it any wonder that clients are finally playing
hardball with outside counsel? See, e.g., Association for Corporate Counsel
(ACC) Value Challenge.
IV. Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand
When I try to predict the structure and attributes of the real FutureFirm—
one that will “survive and thrive over the next 20 years”—the most plausible
models seem to divide into two distinct groups.
First, law firms like Marbury & Madison will slowly disintegrate, often because many of their partners decide that it would be easier to jump ship to a
“larger platform” or, alternatively, to start their own smaller firms with a more
manageable cost structure. For the latter group, they can split the cost saving
with their clients, enjoy a clean slate to implement some commonsense ideas,
and be small enough to be governed by group norms. Further, the principals
will love the fact that they are no longer living in the Above-the-Law fishbowl.
But more importantly, with their personal guarantees on the bank loans and
the office lease, and daily face-to-face contact with one another, the founding
partners are going to have a shared, long-term time horizon.
Two law firms that fit this model are Summit Law Group (in Seattle) and
Valorem (in Chicago). To add an element of realism to FutureFirm 1.0, we
invited lawyers from both Summit and Valorem to participate on the partner teams. All of these lawyers left BigLaw partnerships to pursue a business
model that they believed would better align the interests of clients with their
outside lawyers. Certainly, every Marbury & Madison firm contains these
types of renegade lawyers. When they founded their own firms, they dumped
the large, expensive offices that reflect a firm hierarchy. In its place are highly
functional workspaces designed to maximize collaboration, productivity, and
workplace comfort. Billable hours—unless demanded by clients—are gone.
In their place are flexible fee agreements that reward efficiency, information
sharing, and results.
The Summit and Valorem models are so commonsense that I am certain that
many other BigLaw lawyers will pursue this option. Thus, a whole new gener-
Professor Bill Henderson | 15
ation of very sophisticated, technically competent corporate lawyers will have
first-hand experience with alternative billing, which should open the door for
major innovations. The only open question is whether any of these firms will
want to scale and diversify their operations so they can compete more effectively for larger scale litigation and transactional matters that are currently
done by BigLaw. In the years ahead, corporate counsel trying to stay within
their budgets will be more willing to have that conversation with upstart
firms that have developed a credible brand for both cost-saving and results.
Second, we can conceive of a FutureFirm that evolves from an existing BigLaw
firm. Many think this transition is impossible; and I think it will be very difficult. But based on the alternative (extinction) and the upside (more money
for lawyer-owners than a traditional BigLaw partnership), this scenario could
actually play out.
The core idea is a high-leveraged model that scuttles the promotion-to-partner model in favor of owner and non-owner lawyers. The owner group would
be comprised of former rainmaking partners who want to move to a business
structure that compensates them for the higher level of risk for taking bundles
of legal matters on a flat fee or alternative fee basis. (Think of it as something
akin to a leveraged MBO.) Conversely, non-owner lawyers would receive less
total compensation, but would get other offsetting benefits that are currently
unavailable under the traditional BigLaw model--e.g., predictable vacation,
flexible work schedules, profit-sharing, reduced billable hour requirements,
promotions and job security based on managerial and technical competence
rather than rainmaking.
Admittedly, this approach will only work if there is substantial inefficiency embedded in the current BigLaw time-and-materials model. Specifically,
once the incentive structure is turned on its head and profitability becomes a
function of optimizing cost and quality simultaneously, lawyers would leverage technology, eliminate redundancy, and generally develop new solutions
(“products”) to old problems. To my mind, the staffing and case management
skills of most well-run plaintiffs’ firms, who do so much with so little, provide clues on how much fat is on the bone. Thus, with the right group of
rainmaking lawyer/owners, I would bet my entire net worth on this concept.
Moreover, in my conversations with insiders at many firms, similar ideas are
beginning to percolate. Lawyers who dismiss these ideas tend to forget that
business as usual is no longer a viable business strategy. See Richard Susskind,
The End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services (2008).
16 | Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up
Consider the basic business logic from the perspective of three key stakeholders: clients, the lawyer workforce, and the lawyer-owners.
Clients. The typical customer of a BigLaw firm is a public or privately held
corporation with a chief in-house lawyer responsible for hiring and monitoring outside legal counsel. These lawyers are under tremendous pressure to
control their legal budget. Conversely, they are vulnerable to second-guessing/hindsight bias in the event of a bad outcome from a major transaction or
litigation matter. So, from their vantage point, the ideal option is a low-cost/
fixed-cost option from highly-skilled lawyers at a name brand law firm. For
lower stakes, where an adverse outcome is unlikely to attract the attention of
senior management, lower-cost regional providers may be the best option.
Hence the extraordinary downward pressure we now observe on law firm fees.
And because of the enormous overcapacity in BigLaw right now, many firms
are willing to reduce rates in order to hang onto work. With the lower fees
comes the need to slash associate pay or reduce entry level hiring in favor of
the lateral spot market.
In reality, the only way for a BigLaw firm to significantly increase profitability
in this environment is to (a) lock-in a predictable stream of revenue and (b)
reduce costs. To my mind, the best way to achieve this objective is to go to
the firm’s best clients2 and request portfolios of matters in which the firm
warrantees quality and assumes the risk of cost overruns. The BigLaw brand
in combination with a brand partner provides the GC with some internal
cover within the corporate hierarchy. And the alternative fee arrangement
helps the GC keep his or her legal budget under control. Of course, for the
model to benefit the law firms, they would have to signficantly reduce costs
while simultaneously maintaining or improving the quality of their services.
Workforce Lawyers. Now consider the benefits of the model from the perspective of non-owner lawyers who need to perform high-quality work under budget. Based on current market conditions, any BigLaw firm would be
flooded with résumés for any legal job offering substantive legal work in a
Note the emphasis on “best” clients. I know one large firm partner who
did alternative fee arrangements for 25+ years before retiring. These arrangements
turned out to be highly lucrative for both the partner and his firm. However, he
stated emphatically that these arrangements grew out of a strong client relationship.
He had built a solid foundation. He felt it would be impossible to build a viable or
satisfying practice by pitching work based on price alone. The precondition of such
an arrangement has to be trust.
Professor Bill Henderson | 17
major legal market with a pay scale that ranged from $80,000 for entry-level
lawyers to $200,000+ for senior lawyers. I doubt this market oversupply will
change anytime during the next several years.
And note, this idea is less an option than a way for a firm to survive under
prevailing market conditions. If the soft market for lawyers is due to soft
demand from clients, the challenges to the business model are unavoidable:
if a firm promotes partners and adds no associates, it dilutes profits and the
rainmakers may decamp; alternatively, if the firm promotes virtually no one
to partner, it creates a cancerous morale problem among associates. Offering
a “third way” may be welcome by many within the firm; and the most ambitious could still make it to equity if they possessed the talent and stamina.
Further, by ditching the high associate cost structure, the firm could take
advantage of a favorable labor market for junior level talent.
Although the pay would be lower than traditional BigLaw, the workplace
would offer a much more collaborative, interesting, and flexible work environment than a circa 2008 Am Law 200 firm. The biggest distinction would
be a relatively flat internal hierarchy and the formation of work teams to
handle a portfolio of legal matters. Each team would have one or more supervising attorneys (often but not always an owner/former partner) who would
set project budgets, monitor quality, and generally tend to the relationship
with the client. Conversely, the team would share in the upside if the projects
are completed under budget or the outcome triggers a success fee with the
client. Individual lawyers could also receive bonuses for any innovations that
reduced costs and/or increased quality in a way that was scalable or transferable to other legal work.
The team-based approach offers several advantages over the traditional
BigLaw pyramid. First, it taps into the truism that two heads (or four or six)
is better than one, even if the one head working alone went to an elite law
school. Second, it builds in redundancy into the system, so workloads can
be balanced across the teams and lawyers can enjoy more predictable hours,
turn off their Blackberries on vacation, and work part-time without fear of
schedule creep or workplace stigma. Third, as demonstrated by the breakthrough empirical research of economist Scott Page, diversity along the lines
of race, gender, age, ideology, and other attributes is a bona fide advantage
in any setting that relies upon teamwork for innovation. See, e.g., The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools,
18 | Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up
and Societies (2007).3 Obviously, this significantly broadens the hiring pool.
Fourth, the team-based approach fully aligns the interests of the group in
pursuit of a common goal—the best legal service for the lowest possible cost.
When a team member violates group norms, they get thrown off the island.
Inefficiencies that spring from billable hour quota and origination credits will
be a thing of the past.
In my experience, very few lawyers actually want to be business people, especially if it requires time and energy of the typical BigLaw equity partner.
This trend seems to be even more pronounced among the current generation
of young lawyers and law students. (Note that this does not necessarily signal
a change in generational taste; rather, equity partnership is less appealing as
the job has become more grueling, less secure, and less collegial.) Instead, the
majority of lawyers want similar things: interesting work, the opportunity to
grow as a professional without destroying personal or family relationships, a
good income, and to be part of an organization that reflects values that they
admire. In many respects, the desired value proposition is similar to the one
offered to a manager at Procter & Gamble or an engineer at Google. The
solution, obviously, is not working harder; it is working smarter.
Lawyer-Owners. The firm would be owned by a relatively small number of
lawyers/partners who collectively possess (a) the willingness, business acumen, and financial wherewithal to take risks, (b) a longer term time horizon,
and (c) crucially, the legal knowledge, client relationship skills, and overall
market credibility to warrantee the quality of the firm’s work. Regarding (c),
here is the last, best chance for many BigLaw lawyers to cash in on the value
of their “brand” firm. With the massive overcapacity of so many law firms,
the market power of virtually all BigLaw brands is declining. Therefore, these
firms should use that brand to seed a model with better long-term prospects.
While I suspect that the vast majority of BigLaw partners will scoff at this
statement, my proposed FutureFirm model of “high-quality/alternative billing” offers a much better upside for the rainmakers and law firm managers
who own the firm. Why?
First, they are likely to make more money. This is a high leverage model that is
During the 2008-09 academic year, the entire Indiana Law 1L class was
divided into groups of seven for several challenging and complex group projects.
Although we were unaware of Page’s book, the instructors (including myself ) did
notice how the most diverse groups (age, race, gender, ideology, work styles) tended
to be top performers.
Professor Bill Henderson | 19
scaleable and has enormous growth potential. The whole venture is based on
the systematization and productizing of work formerly done by BigLaw under a time-and-materials approach. Whereas BigLaw partners made seven figures, the owners in this model could make eight figures—a fact that they are
unlikely to share with The American Lawyer because the firm will no longer
need to focus on attracting or retaining lateral lawyers with their high PPP.
Second, the firm’s long-term brand is based on superior business processes and innovative use of technology, not the résumés of individual lawyers.
Therefore, the firm can bow out of insane salary wars for associates and partners. Further, because the superior results are the product of teams (both lawyers and other knowledge workers), it will be very difficult for lawyers to replicate these results at a rival firm. Indeed, many of the firm’s best ideas could
be proprietary intellectual property. In other words, this approach creates
firm-specific capital—the strongest glue possible for any professional service
firm. Some of my earlier writings and research have explored the economics
and data that undergird this approach. See, e.g., Are We Selling Results or
Résumés?: The Underexplored Linkage between Human Resource Strategies
and Firm-Specific Capital (2008 working paper).
Third, such a structure pulls the plug on the growth imperative of the promotion to partnership tournament (and its concomitant profit sharing limitations and power sharing illusions). Under this model, lawyers have jobs
as long as they are contributing to the economic vitality of the organization.
Admission into the ownership tier would involve an honest dialogue on the
demands and sacrifices of making this leap. The vetting process itself would
be both much more rigorous and much more transparent. One of the sources
of instability in the current model is the expectation among mid-level associates—a much smaller group than entry level associates—that they have
a legitimate shot at partnership. See Henderson & Zaring, Young Associates
in Trouble. As noted above, promoting them creates the need for additional
associates to maintain leverage and profitability; in the future, client demand
is unlikely to be sufficient to support such growth, at least for all firms. Conversely, failing to promote the best associates, despite considerable toil and
sacrifice for the benefit of the partnership, foments distrust and disloyalty
among the entire junior lawyer workforce that is very difficult to reverse.
Most good lawyers understand the value of effective expectation management. This new model does just that.
20 | Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up
I do not want to diminish the immense difficulty of identifying and transitioning to a law firm business model that fits the emerging business landscape. Large organizations are inherently complex and fragile. And because
of their peculiar history and regulatory limitations, law firms must deal with
additional layers of complexity. Most corporate law firms have been rolling
downhill for several decades, picking up size, prestige, and profits along the
way. Now the lawyers within these massive, successful organizations have to
rewrite the rules of their own governance while billing 2,000+ hours per year.
To some extent, the rational solution for most partners is to put their head
down and focus on their clients under the theory that, when the smoke clears,
they will always have someplace to land.
But this is not the first time the US business lawyers have been flummoxed
by the difficulty of creating a stable business structure. A few years ago, my
co-author, Professor Marc Galanter, quipped that Paul Cravath “invented”
the large law firm. I remember thinking to myself at the time why someone
would need to invent something so seemingly obvious. The large law firm
enabled greater specialization, the efficient training of lawyers, scalability to
meet the needs of clients, and greater profits. Yet, as I dug into the history of
the corporate bar in the U.S., I was surprised to see a pattern of mentorship
that failed to produce large, stable partnerships. Once the master trained a
junior to perform sophisticated legal work for a substantial business client
and the junior attained similar profession stature and ability, the master was
reluctant to split profits in a way that reflected their relative contributions.
After all, the master trained the junior. There was disagreement on if and
when such a debt could be fully repaid. See Otto E. Koegel, Walter S. Carter:
Collector of Young Masters, or the Progenitor of Many Law Firms (1953).
In the 1890s, Paul Cravath found himself in such an arrangement with Walter Carter. Carter was an eminent New York City business lawyer who had
a special knack for identifying and cultivating exceptional legal talent. Like
many who came before and after, Cravath became Carter’s partner but not his
equal. So Cravath left the firm and eventually rose to prominence in the firm
that would eventually be called Cravath Swaine & Moore. There, Cravath
deployed Carter’s training principles, but added on an incentive structure
that (a) focused on providing quality and value to the firm’s sprawling array
of clients, and (b) trained more lawyers to his high-quality standards so the
Professor Bill Henderson | 21
firm could keep pace with demands of his satisfied clients. The combination
of training, profits, and future opportunities held the organization together
and enabled it to grow. In essence, everyone’s best option, including clients,
was to remain loyal to the system that Cravath had created. Eventually, the
value of this structure was obvious to others. Hence its widespread adoption
by law firms throughout the nation.
The Cravath model has become, over time, the traditional model. Today, its
primary virtue is its ingrained familiarity and the lack of any obvious successor that is likely to make all, or even most, of the stakeholders better off.
Ironically, its limitations are most pronounced in law firms that have enjoyed
the longest run of success. Transitioning to a new model, therefore, is going to take world-class leadership and change management worthy of several
business school case studies. Discussing these challenges openly is one of the
necessary precursors to this lengthy process. Judged on this basis, FutureFirm
1.0 was a major success.
22 | Will the Real FutureFirm Please Stand Up
Professor Bill
William Henderson (“Bill”) is a Professor of Law at the Indiana University
Maurer School of Law, where he teaches courses on the legal profession,
project management, business law, and law firm economics. His research,
which focuses on the empirical analysis of the legal profession and legal education, has been published in leading law journals and leading publications
for practicing lawyers, including The American Lawyer, The ABA Journal,
and The National Law Journal. Bill’s observations on the legal market and
legal education are also frequently quoted in the mainstream press, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Atlantic
Monthly, The Economist, and National Public Radio.
Based on his incisive analysis of the structural changes occurring in the legal
profession, Professor Henderson was recently included on the National Law
Journal’s list of The 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America. In 2012, he
was named among the Top 5 Most Influential People in Legal Education
by The National Jurist magazine. In 2009, Henderson was named a “Legal
Rebel” by the ABA Journal in recognition of his influence on legal education and the changing economics and structure of the legal profession. Bill
speaks to law firms, law schools, and legal organizations all over the country,
sharing insights on the future of legal services and the results of his empirical research.
Henderson has been a member of Indiana University Maurer School of Law
faculty since 2003, where he serves as the director of the school’s Center on
the Global Legal Profession.
Professor Bill Henderson | 23