The Ownership Mentality: Addressing the Real Threat to Law Firm Survival

03/01/2009
Published in Legal Management, March 2009

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The business press generally, and the legal press in particular, has devoted considerable attention to the global recession and the impact it is having on law firms. Several of the world's largest law firms have made major headlines by postponing new law school hires, laying off associates and staff, and "de-equitizing" or demoting underperforming partners. One prominent Web site with news about the legal profession even started a "Layoff List," which as of mid-January 2009 showed 55 firms as having shed staff, associates or partners.

Major law firms are definitely on the downside of this latest chapter in the boom-and-bust cycle. Even so, the pain being felt by the major firms as institutions is not that bad, particularly when compared to that of the banks and the auto companies. Layoffs, delaying the start date of recently hired graduates, or cutting by 20 percent the compensation of partners already earning over 1 million dollars a year, may be novel to these firms, but is not huge in overall economic impact. Real "hurt" is being felt by many of the United States' 1 million-plus lawyers who are sole practitioners or members of small firms and making $60,000 to $100,000 a year representing individual clients and small businesses. But in many respects, what's a "difficult economy" for the big firms is often just more of what these smaller practices consider to be business as usual.

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