Law Firm as a Business Organization (B573)


Stable, transparent, not very complicated, reasonably profitable, and often quite collegial. It also has flaws.


As noted in Part I (330) of this “learning about law firms” series, it’s taken nearly two decades in the trenches, including many years doing applied work with law firms, for a very confusing and counterintuitive insight to come into focus:  Most large firms are not “firms” in the sense of conventional business theory.  Instead, they are a confederation of individual partners building and running leveraged practices in various complementary and adjacent legal specialties.

In today’s essay (Part II), I’ll add a second counterintuitive insight:  For the most part, lawyers pay little or no financial price for organizing themselves as a confederation rather than a firm.  Even in the event of spectacular collapse, as was the case with Dewey, Brobeck, Heller, Howrey, Thelen, and many other large firms, see ALM Staff, “30 Years of Law Firm Collapses: An Annotated Timeline,” Law.com, Oct 29, 2019, there’s always a large cadre of competitor firms looking to give the partners (and their fee-generating practices) a new home.  In most cases, what provides financial security and certainty to an equity partner is seldom the quality of firm-level strategy, or the ability of firm leadership to execute, but instead the health and vitality of their own practice.

This is what distinguishes law firms from conventional businesses. Like Legos blocks, individual law practices can be removed from one law firm and snapped onto another. 
Continue Reading Learning about law firms, Part II: Why confederation is our default model (332)


“Some things are clearer from a distance.”


20 years ago, I didn’t know very much about law firms, though I was curious and knew law firms were important, at least to students attending law school.  Thus, why not dig into the primary vehicle for a successful and rewarding legal career?

That was my reasoning back in the fall of 2004 when I first taught a course called “The Law Firm as a Business Organization (B573).”  As a junior professor, it was an early win for my career. Foremost, the students gave it strong reviews, which enabled me to teach it again in 2006.  Second, it put me in direct contact with practicing lawyers, as I invited them to class to bring color to the assigned readings. Third, it launched some novel and original research that earned me tenure and opened doors to do challenging applied work in the legal innovation space, including Lawyer Metrics, the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP), and Legal Evolution.

Now, for the first time in 16 years, I am teaching the Law Firms course, prompting much reflection.  See 2022 Syllabus.  What’s changed more—the law firm market or my perspective?  It’s a close call.
Continue Reading Learning about law firms, 20 years in (330)