Photo of Tom Sharbaugh

Tom Sharbaugh is currently a Professor of Practice at Penn State Law and the Director of the law school’s Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic.  He was a partner of a global law firm for many years, serving as firm-wide managing partner for his most recent 15 years with that firm.

Norma Rae (1979), 20th Century Fox.  Photo from The Hollywood Archives, Alamy.

Higher profits come at a cost.  Be careful what you wish for.


As a multiple-decade veteran of Big Law, I vividly remember the many debates about whether practicing law was a profession or a business.  I was often leading these discussions as the firm-wide managing partner of operations of a global law firm.  How could a firm with over 1,000 lawyers, over $1 billion in revenue, and over 20 offices be anything but a business?

In an attempt to gain the latest insights on strategy, finance, human resources, outsourcing, and IT, I eagerly read every issue of Harvard Business Review.  I remember years ago having to overcome the partners’ resistance to being paid only by direct deposit and to increasing the partner-to-secretary ratio beyond 1-to-1.  Now that I am gone from Big Law and managing a law-school legal clinic where I am still practicing law (but with startups and other micro businesses), I frequently question whether being so focused on productivity and efficiency in my former life was worth the price.  Perhaps giving up a few ticks in profits per partner (PPP) would have made my firm a better place.

In this Labor Day essay, I’ll offer some second thoughts on the business of law,
Continue Reading Labor Day reflections, including some second thoughts, on the business of law (327)


Balancing short-term benefits against long-term costs


One bright sunny day, Jack, a junior lawyer, discovers what could be a problem—Great Idea Inc., the big-potential startup corporate client for which he is working, does not have any organizational records.  Jack’s job is to prepare Great Idea for a major venture capital investment.  He has the Certificate of Incorporation that was filed in Delaware three years earlier, but the officers of the company say that their only records consist of a cloud-stored spreadsheet that shows the equity ownership upon which the three owners have agreed.  Jack knows that the Delaware corporate statute requires an organizational meeting for the election of directors and then board action to issue shares and elect officers.
Continue Reading Will remote work adversely affect the training, productivity, and retention of lawyers? (317)

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Success as a lawyer can come at the expense of personal relationships. Is it worth the price?


Few of my former partners in the global firm where I worked would understand my transition from a profits-first managing partner to a speaker and commentator on lawyer well-being.  How could this have happened?  Have I gone soft?  Quite the contrary—I remain on my mission to live a good life.

Before offering my views on law practice and lawyer careers, it’s useful for me to state my background upfront so that readers know my biases. For about three decades, I was a partner in a global law firm, practicing in a wide variety of business areas (frankly, wherever the clients led me).  For the last 15 years of that run, I was the full-time managing partner with firm-wide responsibility for the day-to-day business of the firm.  At the end of my third term as a managing partner (at age 62), I looked for another career and began teaching at a large university’s law school, where I started a legal clinic for startup and early-stage businesses.
Continue Reading Being #1 isn’t always a good thing—loneliness among lawyers (296)


Boomer retirements ought to be a boon for law school clinics.


The Hidden Brain podcast episode Cultivating Your Purpose begins with an effective metaphor that is well-known to aging Baby Boomers: Dustin Hoffman, playing Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate,” is drifting aimlessly on a raft in a swimming pool, as he has been doing for weeks after graduating from college.  When Benjamin confirms to his father that he has no plans whatsoever for the future, Benjamin’s father leans over him and demands to know “what was the point of all of that hard work?” Benjamin responds, “you got me.”  Unfortunately, many Baby Boom lawyers are asking themselves the same question after they retire or approach retirement—“what’s the point?”
Continue Reading Could a purpose deficit fill unmet legal need? (273)


“One of the biggest myths in legal education is that there is more than enough well-paying work for anyone who has a law license.”


About ten years ago, through a connection made by Bill Henderson, I was invited to a gathering of law-school professors in Northern California.  I was still a manager of a global law firm at the time, and Bill thought that it would be useful to add a practitioner to the group, which otherwise comprised solely academics from around the US.  I remembered this conference recently as I read about the focused efforts of the Debevoise & Plimpton law firm starting in 2012 to bolster demand for its services after years of no growth or decline. See Dylan Jackson, “Debevoise Faced a Demand Crisis. Its Solution Required Change From the Ground Up,” Law.com, July 1, 2021.

The reason for the flashback was my laughed-at suggestion that law schools should add a course in sales and marketing to their curricula. 
Continue Reading Would sales & marketing in law school cross a red line? (251)


Count me among the skeptics.


We are all familiar with the allegations that CEOs of publicly traded companies manipulating their earnings from period to period by such actions as booking discretionary expenses at the end of a strong quarter or deferring a major sale until the beginning of a new period.  No one thinks that these actions are laudable from an integrity standpoint, and sometimes they are sufficiently flagrant to result in securities-fraud allegations.

Thus, it is surprising to me that law firm managers have been boasting in the first quarter of 2021 about their prudence in prepaying in the last quarter of 2020 major expenses that were not due until 2021.  See, e.g., Andrew Mahoney, “Big Firms Headed Off ‘Great Unknowns’ by Pre-Paying Bills,” Law.com, Mar. 10, 2021 (discussing prevalence of practice).
Continue Reading Is income manipulation by Big Law laudable behavior? (227)


Maybe. And if so, it would an improvement over what working and middle-class people can afford now.


Most lawyers have probably seen by now the announcement that Arizona has become the first state to permit law firms to have owners that are not lawyers.  See, e.g., Bob Ambrogi, “Arizona Is First State To Eliminate Ban On Nonlawyer Ownership Of Law Firms,” Lawsites, Aug. 31, 2020.  While much of the early commentary has focused on whether this will permit the Big Four accounting firms to encroach further into the lawyers’ protected realm of practice, this new rule is a big deal for the little guy.
Continue Reading “Everyday Low Price” for Legal Services in Arizona? (198)

Source: ABA Profile of the Legal Profession ch. 1 (2020)

Fulfilling work can be found in legal deserts.


There are numerous reports of the problems presented by the decline of the number of primary-care physicians in the United States. The overwhelming majority of med school students understandably gravitates towards the high-paying specialty residencies. The ABA’s recent “Profile of the Legal Profession 2020” report, which includes a chapter on “legal deserts,” caused me to think about the legal profession’s similar problem—the decline of the primary-care lawyer.
Continue Reading In praise of the primary-care lawyer (194)

image of man looking at watch


A timely reminder on the value of time, from my carpenter.


Large firm lawyers spend a lot of time debating the pros and cons of so-called “alternative fee arrangements,” but hourly billing is still their sweet spot.  It is much nicer to focus on the legal work than to worry about being efficient or pursuing