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William C. Altreuter
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Friday, March 27, 2015

A few months ago four partners from the Commercial Litigation Department of an old-line Buffalo firm walked out and opened the Buffalo office of what had been up to that time a medium sized Rochester firm. This was big news for several reasons. One of the partners is a larger than life sort of character, for one thing, the kind of lawyer who becomes a kind of alter-ego for the firm in question. It was likewise notable because in the minds of most observers the departure placed the ongoing existence of the firm in question in serious question. When a shop has over a hundred people working for it a lot of people get jittery.

It emerged a week or so a go that the managment of the firm-- it's Damon & Morey if you can't be bothered to click the link-- are in merger discussions with another Rochester firm, one with an already substantial Buffalo presence. That merger, if it happens, would work a substantial change on the law firm landscape in these parts, probably displacing the two current largest shops in town in terms of size, client base and the rest. The fallout would probably also be pretty significant. I would expect to see a fair-sized handful of smaller shops opening around here, for example.

All of this has me thinking about the shoemaker's children. Just about the worst run businesses I can think of are law firms, and since so many of us are in the business of telling other people how to run their businesses this qualifies as a legitimate irony. It would make a lot of sense for law schools to offer courses in law firm management, and it appears that there are some schools out there which do-- but some of the classes my quick Google search turned up are more focused on the acquisition of general practice skills than they are on understanding the dynamics and structure of a complex business model which is a fraught as what we do. Every day the chief assets of a law firm put on their hats and go home, leaving behind file cabinets full of other peoples' problems, fancy leased offices, and some computer equipment that is worth pennies on the dollar. Have you ever been in the space occupied by a law firm in dissolution? I have, and it is a horrifying sight.

Nearly as horrifying is the effect on the practice of law in a region when a shake-up like this occurs. As lawyers we pretend that a lot of things are true that really aren't. We pretend, for example, that when someone is placed under oath that they will tell the truth-- or that if they don't our wizard lawyer skills will ferret the truth out. We also pretend that there is a stability to what we do. I suppose if we actually acknowledged the realities the existential doubt which would be created would form a vortex of depression and anxiety which would blanket the economy like a a dark, wet cloud. Here's a larger reality: the ongoing concentration of legal talent in larger and larger practices mirrors the concentration of wealth in US society generally, and is bad for everyone who requires legal services-- which is to say, everyone.

It would be really interesting to teach a course about law firms. I think it is a neglected field, and I think that there are a lot of people who will suffer because we really only have anecdotal information about how the majority of lawyers practice. I know from my own observation that when law school graduates hit it the realities come as a serious shock-- and I think that shock is one reason a lot of legal academics decide that that they'd rather be anything but a practicing lawyer. Sadly for them the realities of being law school faculty are also rarely taught.

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