After clerking for a judge on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, I began as a lawyer in “Big Law.” That is, I practiced law in Lexington, Nebraska with two other lawyers. We were three times bigger than the solo practitioners who dotted the surrounding legal landscape.
Our firm (Cook, Kopf and Doyle) had been there since 1884 with Ed Cook, my beloved partner, being the third generation of Cooks to head up the firm. We prided ourselves on doing the same quality of work one might find in North Platte or Grand Island, an even Lincoln or Omaha.
Our “big law” outfit produced the youngest United States Attorney in the history of Nebraska (Don Ross), then it produced the Honorable Donald R Ross of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and, much later, a state district judge, my other wonderful law partner, Judge Jim Doyle–the recipient of the Nebraska Supreme Court’s highest honor: The Distinguished Judge for Service to the Community Award. And coming directly from the firm, I somehow became a United States Magistrate Judge and later a United States District Judge.
We shared “profits” equally no matter who brought in the most money. We thought “eat what you kill” was a way of life best suited for the Serengeti National Park. We had an office manager and several secretaries. We paid them fairly. Our overhead ran over 50 percent of what we made. Getting rich was never the point, although, believe or not, we charged as much as $50.00 per hour.
Despite all the good, our practice was not a bed of roses. But like the vet who served in the trenches with his buddies, I love my law partners–Ed and Jim–to this day. And I know they feel the same about me.
The “Big Law” reference from above is obviously whimsical. I know nothing of the real Big Law. Thus, I was fascinated by the horror show described in The Lawyer Bubble, A Profession in Crisis by Steven J. Harper, published by Basic Books in 2013. Having made money as an equity partner at his former firm, Harper was able to retire from Big Law at 54. He pursued a second career as a teacher at Northwestern and as an author.
The book written by a long-time litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis provides damning insights into the legal profession as practiced by Big Law and the big law schools that produce far too many young lawyers and lie to maintain themselves as farm teams for Big Law. Harper, who graduated from Harvard Law School, and became a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, is perfectly positioned to tell the truth.
And what is that truth? As Gordon Gekko, the fictional character of the 1987 movie, famously declared, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” And God(s) help us all, the biggest and best in the law–super-sized firms and the law schools that feed Big Law–are primarily driven by unadulterated greed, particularly in the short run, while denying that it is so. In his richly researched and heavily foot noted book, Harper proves his point like the preeminent trial lawyer he once was.*
Chapter 8 of the book, entitled “Dewey & Leboeuf: A Case Study,” was to me the most illustrative and fascinating part of the book among the other riveting chapters. On Memorial Day, May 28, 2013, the mega firm filed for bankruptcy. Layer by layer Harper meticulously takes the stinking onion apart to reveal what happened. Think no loyalty to anything but your personal K-1. It is chilling reading.
While the Dewey & Leboeuf failure shook Big Law (but did not change the “business model” favored by Big Law), the real impact was on people, particularly little people. One of the firm’s paralegals described the impact in a poignant letter to Above the Law. It read, in part, “I know these facts do not necessarily make for sexy headlines but I do ask that you report on the following. While some laugh and play their lyre as the city of Rome burns, it will be well over one-thousand staff members who will also be gainfully unemployed.”
Harper’s masterful book is not one you should put on your summer reading list. No, it should be reserved for the cold and dreary month of January when you are more likely to see the truth through the gloom that is the dead of winter. Fair warning: Bundle up.
*For another review and a great interview of the author, see David Lat, An Interview with Steven Harper, Former Kirkland Partner and Author of ‘The Lawyer Bubble’, Above the Law (Apr 9, 2013). In that piece, Harper talks about fixes. First and apparently foremost, “I would try to get people to realize there is value in thinking beyond this year’s profits per partner and to focusing on broader questions of institutional culture — stability, mentoring, so forth.”