“The Lawyer Bubble, A Profession in Crisis” by Steven J. Harper

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.

Image credit: Photo of Harper by David Schachman Photography

Image credit: Photo of Harper by David Schachman Photography

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.

GreedAnd 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.”



10 responses

  1. I have not read the book and, frankly, have no great desire to do so. I already know the legal “profession” is pretty much in the toilet. The changes I’ve personally seen during the past 34 years convince me that what was once an honorable pursuit is too often a tumble in the garbage looking for money. I suggest there are legions of lawyers out here who on most days feel like all they are is someone running around with a big dollar sign in the middle of their forehead – that is the measure of your worth, or lack thereof. When traditionally unethical “solicitation” was turned into “advertising for legal services”, lawyers confirmed what the public already knew – chasing of the almighty dollar is the rat race we run. Yessiree! See our Yellow Pages ad. We represent injured people and we make home and hospital visits (right behing that ambulance).

  2. You are a rare bird indeed. A lawyer that loves his law partners? No eat what you kill? Unheard of in Omaha.

  3. Judge, I know your former partners and graduated from law school with one of them. One could say they are a lovable duo. 🙂

  4. Dud,

    While not going as far as you, I agree that many in the profession have turned themselves into plumbers who love sewers. All the best.


  5. Dud,

    Thanks for the kind words. Truly, they are kind and great people and wonderful lawyers.

    All the best.


  6. That is as good a way to put as I have seen in a long while, yet I know plumbers who have a lot more respect than the average ambulance chaser on the corner. You are fortunate to deal with lawyers in the federal setting, where I will grant you the standard of practice and overall ethics is a step up.

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