Law Firms: From One to 4200 Attorneys

September 29, 2015

I finished college in December 1977, one semester early. I indulged my love for Chicago by getting a job as a runner for Kirkland & Ellis. The job was … well, outside mostly, from late December until early May. The boots were cold and wet at night and in the morning. That aside, the firm offered up free Danish in the morning, and if things were slow we were sent away for a while, to insure that management did not see a mailroom full of young guys, sitting around. Great job!

From memory, I believe Kirkland had 200 attorneys in the late 1970s, 160 in Chicago and 40 in Richmond, dedicated to representing Westinghouse—the real one, not the brand now owned, apparently, by Toshiba—in a lawsuit. (From the world of small worlds, 20+ years later I met and became friendly with a Kirkland partner to whom I used to take paper “up on 59” in the Standard Oil building.)

In 1977-8 I don’t know where Kirkland stood in national rankings of law firms by size, but I know it was one of the two or three largest firms in Chicago, and one of the top 20 firms in the country. And today?

According to Investopedia Kirkland is the 6th largest firm in the world by revenue, with annual revenue in excess of $2b. The firm has more than 1600 attorneys. (Average revenue per attorney, using those numbers? $1,250,000. My average revenue? Lots less.)

The largest firm in the world is Baker & McKenzie, with more than 4200 attorneys in 77 offices in 47 countries on six continents. Also started in Chicago, it is one of six of the top 10 firms with roots in the United States. The other four are all London-based firms.

The attorneys who work for these mega-firms—at least those who started in the USA—have the same training and background I have. And what they do day to day, on a most basic level, differs not so much from what I do. More zeroes and a wider playing field, but a lawsuit gets filed in court, whether it’s signed by a solo practitioner or a DLA Piper partner. And the Rules of Professional Conduct apply, regardless of firm size.

I wonder, though, for how long my profession can hold itself together, given the vast range of differences in the way in which attorneys deliver their services. Take, for example, conflicts of interest. The easy one is, Don’t sue a current client, and that includes your client or one of your partners’ client. Computers can deal with that issue, even with 4200 attorneys and 77 offices on six continents. Me? I use memory and the list of clients in Outlook.

Then there are positional or issue conflicts. Attorney handles a case for client A. If client A prevails, the outcome may indirectly and adversely affect client B. (Andrew Altschul has written Who Say’s You Can’t Have it Both Ways?, an excellent paper on the subject.) Can a computer figure that one out? Maybe, but for the fact that issues can present themselves unexpectedly, making it nigh on impossible to truly know whether or when a positional conflict might arise. Assume no ethical problems for a moment: Are you, client B, paying Mega-Firm a bloody fortune, going to be happy when your business has a problem caused by the fine lawyering of your attorney’s partner in the firm’s office on the other continent?

Then there’s money. Can an industry maintain itself when those in the forefront are dealing in millions and billions, while the vast majority of attorneys deal with lesser sums? Can civil litigation procedures work for regular people and their attorneys, as well as mega-businesses and their mega-law firms?

The American Bar Association is my profession’s primary trade association. I pay my dues, and I honor the ABA’s advocacy for justice. I do wonder, though, whether its focus on the profession can mean anything if it must consider my interests, alongside those of Baker & McKenzie or Kirkland & Ellis.

One Response to Law Firms: From One to 4200 Attorneys

Leave a Reply