There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and even a little chest-thumping about the collapse of Manhattan mega-firm Dewey LaBoeuf. The hand wringers wonder what has become of the law; the chest thumpers can’t say I told you so loudly enough. From where I sit, the collapse of a Biglaw giant is a ho-hum affair.
My wife was alarmed when word of the collapse reached the front page of the New York Times. I chuckled. “The big boys are learning what trench lawyers live with daily; despite the law’s lofty aspirations, the practice of law is a business,” I thought. So a caviar-guzzling firm now hits the skids, over-extended, unable to pay its bills, its lawyers now scrambling to hang their shingles in a lower-rent district? Welcome to the real world, fellas.
We pretend the law is immune to the ordinary failings of other businesses, of course. We are a profession. We serve clients. We adhere to lofty ethical goals. We are lonely sentinels standing watch for civilization in the war of all against all. Or some such.
We are all these things, of course, but we are still driven by the need to keep employees fed, the lights shining, the rents paid, and all the other flotsam and jetsam that comes with running a business. Few who write about lawyers write candidly about the economic realities of the practice of law. Only Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller worries consistently about paying the bills, but even he is rescued by big-fee clients, dropping into his life with the unexpected subtlety of the deus ex machina. Most lawyers grind it out day by day without miracles saving them.
I take little pleasure in the collapse of Dewey LaBoeuf. Like all lawyers, I daydream. A periodic fantasy has me responding to the call of a big firm. They need a lawyer to handle their pro bono work. I’ll be paid a handsome salary, given a paralegal or two, and set free to pursue the reversal of false convictions, the reform of the law, all underwritten by the corporate side of the firm. I seem to recall a character with a gig like that in a novel by Scott Turow; a charmed life is what I want.
Don’t we all.
There’s a schizophrenic quality to the practice of law. My phones ring off the hook with people in crisis. This one faces grave criminal charges. That one has suffered an injury. A horrible divorce keeps parent from child. A mother’s estate is hijacked by folks with dollar signs in their eyes. The police abused another boy in a routine traffic stop. There’s a tidal wave of need out there. I get punch drunk listening to all the tales of woe. All the callers want justice, or retribution, or maybe just vengeance.
I get to pick and choose the fights I take on. And that decision is, like or not, a matter of dollars and cents. I am asked almost daily to take a new case pro bono. There are only so many of those cases to give.
So I am a businessman. In the end, a discussion about whether I will take a case comes down to whether the client can afford my fee, and whether I have the time to give the client and her case. Putting it out there so plainly diminishes me, somehow. I don’t want to acknowledge the gritty dollars and cents reality of the practice of law. I want my profession to be immune from the laws of supply and demand. What conceit feeds that desire?
I suppose I have fallen prey to one of the unremarked phenomenon of the law: the integrity pitch.
The pitch goes something like this. Bring me your sorrow, your pain, your suffering. I will listen, and offer wise counsel on the ways of the law. You will listen to me with something akin to admiration, certainly with trust. In a world of predators, I alone will stand untainted by my interests. I will place your interests ahead of my own. I am your servant, if you will, schooled in the fine arts of advocacy. My fee? Oh, it’s nothing really; don’t worry about it at all. I’ll send a bill along. Pay it if and when you can. No, don’t worry about the fee.
I’ve met lawyers who engage in the pitch and then, once the client is hooked, insist on payment or threaten to withdraw from the client’s case. So long as enough clients buy the integrity pitch no one needs to be pressed for payment; it’s sort of like a moral Ponzi scheme. But, as every lawyer knows, the Rules of Professional Conduct permit a lawyer to withdraw from a case if the client does not make good on the fee. Why not be a little more upfront with folks about that?
The collapse of Dewey LaBoeuf, and the grinding anxiety of the past few year’s recession, have taught me more about the practice of law and the operation of a law firm than years of study. Economic realities must be served. It’s a jungle out there. Everyone markets. Even the big firms stumble, and the integrity pitch, like all marketing ploys, either pays the bills or not