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The Big Picture: The Good Old Daze

By Annie Gausn | Sep. 2, 2006

News

Law Office Management

Sep. 2, 2006

The Big Picture: The Good Old Daze

A lawyer in a megafirm finds that legal practice in the 21st century isn't as bad as many people think. In fact, it's pretty good. By David Balabanian

Our memories, psychologists tell us, are hardwired to serve up prettified pictures of the past. But closer examination reveals a less benign past and supports more hopeful assessments of the present.
     
      ?Commercialization? of Law Practice Law practice, we sometimes hear, has ceased to be a learned profession and become a business, fixated on press accounts of firm profits. But it is naïve to imagine that lawyers only started thinking about their incomes when the details appeared in the press.
     
      Moreover, much of what is deplored as ?commercialism? in law practice is what passes for progress in other fields. Those lawyers who decry vigorous competition, transparency, well-informed buyers, labor mobility, specialization, extended geographic scope, and increased scale need to explain why those developments are good for everyone but us.
     
      Lawyer Relations Much has been made of the decline in familiarity, trust, and courtesy among lawyers, even lawyers in the same firm. One reason lawyers used to treat each other like members of their families or clubs is that they were. They came from the same gene pool and shared common opinions. The advent of lawyers of different hues and views has changed all that for?and to the?good.
     
      More mixed, perhaps, have been the changes wrought by the appearance of so-called megafirms. One could hardly expect law firms to increase their membership tenfold, or bring together hundreds of refractory personalities, without undergoing major structural change. But whether, as is sometimes claimed, this has produced a diminution of mutual regard or of opportunities for stimulating and satisfying collaboration may be questioned.
     
      It is, of course, no longer possible for every partner to be heard on every subject in today?s megafirm. Nor, happily, can the firm any longer be held hostage to individual threats or tantrums. With size comes a measure of stability and direction and the opportunity, indeed the need, for greater objectivity and fairness. These are not necessarily inimical to trust.
     
      One way these trends show up is in the treatment of younger lawyers. In many firms, advancement now depends more on merit, objectively measured, than on sponsor power; formal training supplants learning by mistake and rebuke; and mentors replace tormentors.
     
      No one could claim that increasing a firm?s lawyer complement from 50 to 1,000 has left unchanged their relations with one another. There are, no doubt, some lawyers who feel adrift, uncared for, and unheeded in today?s megafirms. There are, however, others, perhaps more numerous, to whom the institutional imperatives of size have brought security, better opportunities for professional development, and, yes, improved relations with their colleagues.
     
      Role of Legal Associations and Media There is no better way to assess where matters stood a quarter century ago than by examining the then agendas of our professional associations and the contents of the legal press. There one finds few expressions of interest in expanding either access to membership in the profession or the public?s access to legal services, or concern about the quality of law firm citizenship.
     
      Today, bar associations take the lead in encouraging both broadened access to the profession and to legal services, and law firms joust for recognition as the most generous providers of pro bono services and the best corporate citizens.
     
      Role of Law Perhaps most gratifying of all has been the expanding role of law itself. Indeed, much of what most people would consider societal gain?technological innovation, environmental protection, reduction of race and gender bias and workplace harassment, enhanced product safety, and easier capital formation?was initiated, or greatly facilitated, by the law and, in many cases, by litigation. So profound and durable have been these changes that few remember, or can even imagine, a society without them.
     
      Lawyer Burnout Every day, someone stops being an accountant, podiatrist, or dry cleaner without either writing or prompting an article about how those callings have lost their allure. In contrast, reports of lawyer burnout and a presumed exodus from the profession are commonplace?though unaccompanied by any diminution in the number of young people eager to hurl themselves onto the pyre.
     
      There is, no doubt, more to be done to make the law as productive of public good, and law practice as enjoyable, as they might be. Indeed, it is quite possible that some of the things we do unquestioningly today will one day come to be regarded much as we think of outdoor plumbing. But, fairly appraised in its most important dimensions, the history of law practice in our time must be judged one of steady, sometimes dramatic, progress, not decline from a glorious past that never was.
     
      David Balabanian (david.balabanian@bingham.com) is a partner at Bingham McCutchen in San Francisco. He has been on the California Lawyer Editorial Advisory Board since 1988.
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Annie Gausn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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