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The Lock-Step Monster

by Carolyn Elefant on March 20, 2009 · 4 comments

in Big Law/Small Law, Biglaw Practice and Issues, Business Models

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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. Robert Frost

Why is it that biglaw is always engaged in a constant game of follow the leader?  A few years back, sites like Above the Law gleefully documented the steady upward march of first year salaries from $125,000 to $140,000 to $165,000, taunting those that didn’t keep pace.  Two short years later, as the economy tanked, a trickle of firms with practice areas hit hard by the economy laid off a handful of associates here and there.  But the early round of layoffs took away the stigma and these days, virtually every AmLaw top 100 firm is dumping associates or deferring their start dates.  Of course, either feeling guilty or irrationally optimistic that the economy will turn around, firms are trying to soften the blow of layoffs by extending substantial severance packages and competing to  place laid off lawyers in public interest jobs, overtaxing many non-profits and worse, displacing lawyers who wanted public interest jobs from the outset.

Time after time, whether it’s work-life balance or flex-time or employing contract attorneys to the panicked reaction to the economy, large law firms fall prey to the lock-step monster, taking an action not because it makes sense strategically or serves long term goals but because everyone else is doing it.  From where I and many of my solo and small firm colleagues sit, all we see is biglaw buckling, running scared with no clue of where they’re headed.

That’s not to say that we solos aren’t scared either.  But having created a firm once, we know deep down that we could do it again if it all falls apart.  Though in an earlier post today, I wrote of the dangers of growing stale in solo practice, truth is, I’ve also seen solo and small firms heroically reinvent their practices, either downscaling from a volume practice or going virtual or changing practice areas entirely, or exploring prospects for collaborative ventures.  Granted, some of these solutions may not work for biglaw attorneys, but at least, they offer new ideas and a way to stand down that lock-step monster, once and for all.

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

    I think this is absolutely correct. I am not sure that what Big Law does is any different really from what Big Business does, but it would seem that Big Law represents a matrix that cannot survive in its current form.

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

    I think this is absolutely correct. I am not sure that what Big Law does is any different really from what Big Business does, but it would seem that Big Law represents a matrix that cannot survive in its current form.

  • http://www.responsivedocuments.com Bruce

    In my view, lock-step behavior between competitors is circumstantial evidence of a dying industry or business model.
    When competitors selling paint or peanuts telegraph or ape each others inefficient behaviors, they sometimes get investigated for antitrust violations, particularly if price is one of those behaviors or if the efficiency of the mimicry is in severe doubt.
    When Big law firms mimic each other and run away scared from efficient innovation, it may not be illegal but it does make them appear to be weak competitors hanging on to a weak market share, just as antitrust colluders often are. Perhaps I overstate the case but the inefficiencies I have seen built into Big firm life have led me to compare them not to the hardware store on the corner or to Matlock, but to the East German Communist Party 20 minutes before the Berlin Wall was first breached.

  • http://www.responsivedocuments.com Bruce

    In my view, lock-step behavior between competitors is circumstantial evidence of a dying industry or business model.
    When competitors selling paint or peanuts telegraph or ape each others inefficient behaviors, they sometimes get investigated for antitrust violations, particularly if price is one of those behaviors or if the efficiency of the mimicry is in severe doubt.
    When Big law firms mimic each other and run away scared from efficient innovation, it may not be illegal but it does make them appear to be weak competitors hanging on to a weak market share, just as antitrust colluders often are. Perhaps I overstate the case but the inefficiencies I have seen built into Big firm life have led me to compare them not to the hardware store on the corner or to Matlock, but to the East German Communist Party 20 minutes before the Berlin Wall was first breached.

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