Contract Rights Under Assault

Barack_Obama_pledges_help_for_small_businesses_3-16-09In 1789, as the inchoate American government was climbing out of the mountainous debt left over from the Revolutionary War, a thorny political problem emerged.  While most of the chattering class was consumed with the debate over whether the states’ war debt should be federalized, another far more visceral controversy arose.  Because the Continental Congress lacked funds during the war, the Revolution was funded partly by wealthy private citizens who invested in bonds.  As a result of the lack of governmental money, many American soldiers were given worthless IOUs at the end of the war, as states scampered for a way to give the patriots their back pay.  Many of these soldiers panicked, and sold their IOUs to speculators for as little as fifteen cents on the dollar.  The problem was, once the federal government began repaying the debt, the value of the bonds soared.  So who should get the money: the patriots who fought bravely for their country and only sold the IOUs because of fear they would get nothing from their government, or the speculators?

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Top Ten Changes in the Legal Profession Since 1979, Part II

Scale_of_justiceThe first half of the Top Ten list was posted yesterday here.

6. The changing structure of law firms, including specialization.

Only a few law firms were “national” or “international” in any sense of the word in 1979. The most well known was Baker & McKenzie, the Chicago behemoth. If I recall correctly, Foley & Lardner had no office outside of Wisconsin (and maybe Milwaukee) in 1979. In 1985, ten Dallas law firms had 100 or more lawyers, but none was as large as the three largest Houston law firms. One of those Dallas firms was the Cleveland law firm of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue (now Jones Day), which came to Dallas in 1981, and which housed 122 lawyers by 1985. Jones Day’s “principal” office is now considered Washington, D.C., according to the National Law Journal, and it has 2,492 attorneys. Large law firms must be national in order to compete effectively for large corporate business (there may be a few New York-based exceptions to this rule, but just a few). Baker & McKenzie remains the largest law firm in the National Law Journal’s NLJ 250 with 3,949 lawyers in 2009, but five firms are larger than 2,000 lawyers, even after a bloodletting in which over 5,200 lawyers at the 250 largest firms were let go beginning in late 2008. The smallest of these 250 firms has 164 lawyers, a number that creates substantial fixed costs.

Firms this large are no longer partnerships in theory or fact. 

Continue ReadingTop Ten Changes in the Legal Profession Since 1979, Part II

Top Ten Changes in the Legal Profession Since 1979, Part I

Scale_of_justiceI was asked by Michael O’Hear to serve as the January guest blogger (blawger?), and thank him for this opportunity. I teach courses in Constitutional Law, Evidence, Professional Responsibility, and American Legal History at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, where I began teaching in the Fall of 1987.  My website is at I started at Marquette Law School in the Fall of 1979.  Since I have little idea what might interest any audience, I decided to use the crutch of an-end-of-the-year (or in this case, beginning-of-the-year) Top Ten list. I’ve listed what I perceive as the ten most important changes in the American legal profession since I entered law school.

1. Increasing competition for business by firms engaged in the private practice of law.

No other change comes close to the impact created by the increased in competition for clients. Several of the other changes listed below are a direct or indirect result of the quest for business. Intensifying competition has altered the promotion-to-partner tournament played by associates; including a substantial lengthening of the years required to reach partnership; changed the calculation of both associate and partner pay (including the dreaded “eat what you kill” compensation method); led to changes in the organizational structure of law firms; increased the shady business of case runners in the personal injury field; and affected the rules of ethics, the mentoring system of recent law school graduates, and law school applications.

One reason why some newly-minted lawyers are paid $160,000 to work at a large law firm is because those lawyers will eventually earn the partners significant profits. It is also because those lawyers are unlikely to make partner at the firm where they start. 

Continue ReadingTop Ten Changes in the Legal Profession Since 1979, Part I