Last time, we looked at Fred Bartlit’s review of Bartlit Beck’s success pursuing a “third way” between a traditional Am Law 200 sized firm and a small “boutique” with a handful of partners.
Here is one of Mr. Bartlit’s concluding paragraphs:
We have learned in the past 20 years that quality is not scalable in law. Quality depends on firm leadership having firsthand personal knowledge of the abilities of every lawyer in the firm. We do not think this is possible in a 1,500 (or even 200) lawyer firm, so we have stayed small in order to maximize quality. When we started in 1993, we felt we had a five-year window before our competition followed our innovation. We were wrong. Almost 20 years later, no other firm has followed.
While Mr. Bartlit describes the key attributes of Bartlit Beck’s legal business model, it’s not exactly a secret formula. From some discussions in the late 1980’s to the firm’s founding, the partners had a different idea, and they went for it. Could they have changed Kirkland & Ellis to their preferred model? It’s doubtful, but it would certainly have taken a lot longer.
I think partners with a vision can do two things well at a time out of these three: (a) do something new (b) practice law; and (c) quarrel with other partners about (a). Apparently Messrs. Bartlit and Beck and partners chose (a) and (b).
I’ve re-read Mr. Bartlit’s article a few times and wondered whether the unfortunate decline and bankruptcy of Dewey & LeBoeuf would lead to the startup of new law firms that aim to pursue a model resembling Bartlit Beck. I haven’t been able to find any. If there are, please note the details in a comment below.
So while a few partners might have joined up with kindred spirits in more normal times, it was very hard to do much planning under the circumstances. I imagine this might be what it was like for most partners who left Dewey within 45 days of its demise; you made a few phone calls on a Thursday and then reached down and pulled the yellow handle on Friday, sometime after 5:00 pm:
(Protip: the foot-wiggle as you clear the canopy keeps your feet from burning.)
Doing something different in corporate legal services is rather simple. But it is not easy. In the short run, it is perhaps less distracting to clients and disruptive to lawyers to do the “punch-out, plug-in” maneuver.
But changing your address from one large law firm to another, I think we can agree, isn’t really about change.
(A small endnote: I was an associate for a law firm in the late 1980s that was co-counsel with K&E on a major insurance coverage case. I spent some time seeing Philip Beck in action, and he was like nothing I had seen up to that point in my career. Come to think of it, I have really seen no one like him since. When I saw who the George W. Bush campaign hired to handle the core front-line proceedings in Bush v. Gore, I figured the election was over.)