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Should We Rescue Biglaw, or Run From It?

by Carolyn Elefant on April 5, 2007 · 10 comments

in Big Law/Small Law, Biglaw Practice and Issues, Work/Life Balance & Women

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At the Ms. JD conference that I attended last week, one woman responded to various remarks on the benefits of starting a firm (by some of us troublemakers in the picture) by saying something to the effect that “Starting a firm is all well and good, but if everyone flees biglaw life, firms will be left stranded as the last bastions of male dominated hierarchy.” That comment has been bearing heavily in my mind since, making me wonder whether lawyers have an obligation to fix biglaw.

In fact, from what I gleaned from Ms. JD, part of its mission is to ensure that female lawyers are represented in the upper echelon, power branches of the legal profession, such as the judiciary and biglaw. In other words, at least part of Ms. JD’s goals is to help women with fight, not flight. And as I posted here at Legal Blogwatch, another group, Students Building a Better Legal Profession just formed, with a mission of changing the modern law firm business model to make it more sustainable and profitable and also allow for a more balanced lifestyle. I support these students and wish them the best. I’m impressed that they’re taking charge of their future and that they’re optimistic enough to believe they can change it. That passion will serve them well whether they succeed or not. And in fact, back when I was a student, I would have done the same – and indeed, in some cases, I did. But now, I’d rather just practice law than fight or rescue a system that’s comprised of lawyers who ought to be smart enough and savvy enough to save themselves if indeed the system is failing (and I’m not convinced we’re at that point).

What’s your view? Are these students on the right track in trying to change biglaw from within? Or if you don’t like how biglaw works, should you choose another option?

  • http://victormedina.typepad.com Victor Medina

    Carolyn –
    I had to deal with similar comments when I left both large firms where I worked, but from the perspective of helping minorities. As a Latino, I found both firms had a lack of minority partners and mentors and when I highlighted this problem, well-meaning people suggested that I stay around to help fix the problem.
    I never agreed with that position. At the risk of sounding like a complainer, minorities have long had to battle for equal treatment, both in the spoken and unspoken worlds. There are some battles I am willing to undertake, but if an underlying premise is that working for a biglaw firm is something that unsettles your tummy, you don’t, as they say, “sweeten the pot” by throwing in an uphill battle of discrimination.
    I believe that you have an obligation to fix entities that deserved to be fixed. For instance, if there be discrimination in an educational setting, that setting is an entity worth fixing. I would government there as well (and I will prepare to duck the barbs about gov’t not being worth fighting for). But there’s nothing terribly redeeming about biglaw in my mind, and so I don’t suffer from an obligation to fix it.
    Were there to be a minority associae who believd biglaw was a true and noble organization, then that person has an obligation to fix it, not flee it.
    Just a few thoughts – VJM

  • http://victormedina.typepad.com Victor Medina

    Carolyn –
    I had to deal with similar comments when I left both large firms where I worked, but from the perspective of helping minorities. As a Latino, I found both firms had a lack of minority partners and mentors and when I highlighted this problem, well-meaning people suggested that I stay around to help fix the problem.
    I never agreed with that position. At the risk of sounding like a complainer, minorities have long had to battle for equal treatment, both in the spoken and unspoken worlds. There are some battles I am willing to undertake, but if an underlying premise is that working for a biglaw firm is something that unsettles your tummy, you don’t, as they say, “sweeten the pot” by throwing in an uphill battle of discrimination.
    I believe that you have an obligation to fix entities that deserved to be fixed. For instance, if there be discrimination in an educational setting, that setting is an entity worth fixing. I would government there as well (and I will prepare to duck the barbs about gov’t not being worth fighting for). But there’s nothing terribly redeeming about biglaw in my mind, and so I don’t suffer from an obligation to fix it.
    Were there to be a minority associae who believd biglaw was a true and noble organization, then that person has an obligation to fix it, not flee it.
    Just a few thoughts – VJM

  • http://stayviolation.typepad.com/chucknewton/ Chuck Newton

    I’m not a Ms. JD, but can I have an opinion? Although I have enjoyed poking a little fun at you gals, I wish I could have gone and listened in at the conference.
    Isn’t this a false dichotomy? First, there is no obligation to fix BigLaw because is broke as to every area except possibly the Biggest of Business. Its being broke has nothing to do with gender and has everything to do with the way Big Law operates. Big Law firms are slowly merging, crashing, and dissolving. Their fee structure and new technology will not be their friend.
    Second, and that said, women lawyers need to be represented at the forefront of any movement. Although being a solo and a small firm is not new, its applicability to the practice of law is new. If women can succeed at Big Law they can better succeed at building their own businesses. If a woman left Google or Microsoft and formed her own tech company, would someone say that she needed to stay behind (not seek fame and fortune) because these companies need reform. I strongly doubt it.
    Yes, women should have a chance at Big Law, but hell most men do not survive it. Most of them go solo or to different firms. The point is that women lawyers can succeed in all levels of the practice of law.

  • http://stayviolation.typepad.com/chucknewton/ Chuck Newton

    I’m not a Ms. JD, but can I have an opinion? Although I have enjoyed poking a little fun at you gals, I wish I could have gone and listened in at the conference.
    Isn’t this a false dichotomy? First, there is no obligation to fix BigLaw because is broke as to every area except possibly the Biggest of Business. Its being broke has nothing to do with gender and has everything to do with the way Big Law operates. Big Law firms are slowly merging, crashing, and dissolving. Their fee structure and new technology will not be their friend.
    Second, and that said, women lawyers need to be represented at the forefront of any movement. Although being a solo and a small firm is not new, its applicability to the practice of law is new. If women can succeed at Big Law they can better succeed at building their own businesses. If a woman left Google or Microsoft and formed her own tech company, would someone say that she needed to stay behind (not seek fame and fortune) because these companies need reform. I strongly doubt it.
    Yes, women should have a chance at Big Law, but hell most men do not survive it. Most of them go solo or to different firms. The point is that women lawyers can succeed in all levels of the practice of law.

  • Anonymous

    This fuss is much ado about nothing. In my state the Chief Justice is female (as was the Vice Chief Justice last time I checked). Go to any large firm and you will see hoards of female associates; those who are able and willing to make the sacrifices required to make partner eventually do.
    Unfortunately, these days advocacy associations, such as Ms. JD, largely exist to advocate for their own indispensability (a unified profession has no need for special interest organizations, or their staff). Look at the entering class of any law school next year and you will see that men are the endangered species on campus. Let’s not create another generation of “entitlement princesses” who think the Big Bad Men are keeping them down. It hasn’t been 1970 for a long, long time.

  • Anonymous

    This fuss is much ado about nothing. In my state the Chief Justice is female (as was the Vice Chief Justice last time I checked). Go to any large firm and you will see hoards of female associates; those who are able and willing to make the sacrifices required to make partner eventually do.
    Unfortunately, these days advocacy associations, such as Ms. JD, largely exist to advocate for their own indispensability (a unified profession has no need for special interest organizations, or their staff). Look at the entering class of any law school next year and you will see that men are the endangered species on campus. Let’s not create another generation of “entitlement princesses” who think the Big Bad Men are keeping them down. It hasn’t been 1970 for a long, long time.

  • ClevelandBill

    You’re talking about Exit, Voice, and Loyalty . . . Albert O. Hirschman. ISBN=0674276604. In the book, Hirschman describes the process of leaving (Exit) or advocating for change (Voice). He describes conditions under which either option will or will not be successful. It is fairly simple to understand, but eye-opening. It is a very strange book in that though rooted in abstract economics, it is applicable directly to customer service–an issue we all face.

  • ClevelandBill

    You’re talking about Exit, Voice, and Loyalty . . . Albert O. Hirschman. ISBN=0674276604. In the book, Hirschman describes the process of leaving (Exit) or advocating for change (Voice). He describes conditions under which either option will or will not be successful. It is fairly simple to understand, but eye-opening. It is a very strange book in that though rooted in abstract economics, it is applicable directly to customer service–an issue we all face.

  • Tom Milburn

    My wife dealt with that at some biglaw firms as a student and when she graduated she chose a small firm because she felt her gender would be an asset. I don’t think it was flight so much as adaptation. I told her that every big firm started with somebody who decided to BE the big firm rather than work for the big firm. Much of the decision lies with your particular talents and proclivities. If someone stays in a biglaw environment it should be for some reason other than a crusade from within the culture. They will change when they feel your firm breathing down their necks.

  • Tom Milburn

    My wife dealt with that at some biglaw firms as a student and when she graduated she chose a small firm because she felt her gender would be an asset. I don’t think it was flight so much as adaptation. I told her that every big firm started with somebody who decided to BE the big firm rather than work for the big firm. Much of the decision lies with your particular talents and proclivities. If someone stays in a biglaw environment it should be for some reason other than a crusade from within the culture. They will change when they feel your firm breathing down their necks.

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