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An Alternate View of the Legal Universe

When I was young, so much younger than today, I completely bought into the fairy tale that the best and brightest lawyers are all at the large law firms and that everyone else is just not that good. After all, they practically teach you that at law school, although they never quite say it aloud, so I imagine that they have plausible deniability.

By the time that they graduate, many young lawyers accept the superiority of a big firm career as a truism and fall over themselves scrambling to be hired by Big Law.

For obvious reasons, I have a problem with the premise that large firm lawyers are the best. Since I did not work in Big Law, accepting this premise would mean that I would also have to accept that I was a second-rate lawyer.

In my early days I completely bought into it. Everyone at Big Law was just smarter, and therefore better, than me.

As the evidence to the contrary started building and eventually became overwhelming, my thought process evolved.

First, I started differentiating between the senior lawyers at the larger firms and the rest of them. I reasoned that the older lawyers often had a great deal of general experience and their more junior colleagues were often more narrowly trained. I thought that even if the most senior people at the large firms were better lawyers than me, the narrow training of the junior partners and associates made it difficult for them to see the forest for the trees. I concluded that my more general experience made me a more effective counsel for entrepreneurial business than they were.

As time went by, I ran into great lawyers at firms of all different sizes, including sole practitioners. At the same time, I encountered more than a few Big Law lawyers who were just not that good at what they did. I began to wonder whether even the senior Big Law lawyers were not any better than the rest of us.

My understanding of the legal world became very murky. Nothing made sense anymore.

So, I developed a new theory. What if the problem is with how we define what constitutes a good lawyer, or even a smart lawyer?

Let’s start with pure intelligence. The large law firms make quite the fuss about always hiring the students with the best academic records. For the sake of argument I am willing to assume that a majority of the lawyers who are hired by Big Law are more intellectually proficient than those who are not, at least if the criteria is how good they are at writing exams. (Now, we would need a sociologist and a ton of research to determine if that is really correct, or if Big Law has traditionally favoured some attributes that trump pure intelligence. But alas, that would lead us into some areas of thought which, while important, would take me far off track. Things like gender, race, social status, and money. For today, I am going to keep the analysis far simpler.)

I am reminded of an expression that I learned from a speaker at a conference organized by the Canadian Franchise Association. He said that the ideal franchisee is “smart, but not too smart. Smart enough to follow the system and not so smart that they think that they can run it better than the franchisor.”

Does the same idea apply to Big Law? Is it possible that the largest law firms value and reward academic intelligence, so that their lawyers can master specialized areas of practice and fit into the Big Law system, over other types of intelligence such as the ability to see the big picture, strategic thinking and dare I say emotional intelligence?

Now of course I am generalizing. I have met absolutely brilliant Big Law lawyers who not only knew their stuff cold but were also gifted at how they dealt with situations, clients, and other lawyers. But I have also met Big Law lawyers who were simply good technicians, or even sometimes just average technicians. Cogs in the machine if you will. They could author a brilliant research memo, draft a great document, and even get a deal closed, but they could also be out-strategized and out-negotiated.

On the other hand, I have met some great lawyers working outside of Big Law who may or may not have been academically brilliant, but girl, could they manage a situation to achieve their client’s goals. Perhaps I even met more of them outside of Big Law than in it.

And so, my thinking has evolved over the years. I eventually stopped underestimating myself and overestimating the other side when I found myself doing battle with a big firm lawyer. I learned that there are great lawyers outside of Big Law. (In fact, I also came to realize that a poor lawyer can hide and survive in Big Law much more easily than in a smaller firm.) I also began to understand that having a larger marketing budget does not make the messaging coming from large firms true.

Finally, I observed that I enjoyed some real advantages when I ran up against large firm lawyers. For one thing, I frequently had more general experience which I could leverage. For another, I was often under less pressure to rack up billable hours, which meant that I had more time and mental energy to devote to the matter.

Now that I am retired, I have come full circle. Assuming that I had all of the money in the world (which I quite assuredly do not have, most likely because I never worked in Big Law, although my domestic reorganization didn’t help things much), if I needed a lawyer for an important personal matter, I might hire a Big Law lawyer. But then again, I would probably just as soon hire someone else.

2 replies on “An Alternate View of the Legal Universe”

To add to this, I once had a conversation with a colleague who specialised in banking law. She said that it was common for some borrowers to instruct Big Law firms when negotiating facility agreements with banks because it showed the borrower was “serious” when it came to the table and was likelier to secure better terms in the end. It was an interesting variation on the “hiring IBM” trope. I imagine, though, there are probably a number of parallels in other settings eg the reputation of the Starbury.

That is interesting. I wonder whether it would work in Toronto or whether the large firms would be seen as being hesitant to pull out all the stops against one of the major Banks out of fear of being excluded from Bank work. Very often if you want to do Bank work you have to agree not to act against the Bank without permission from their in-house counsel. And, in the litigation context, it is difficult to get any of the major firms to act against a major Bank.

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