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In Search of Perfect Client Service Why lawyers don't seem to get it

NBA Centers Illustrate The Value Of Being Big

Posted in Client Service, Selection of counsel

The Greatest American Lawyer has a very interesting post titled “Being Big Provides No Intrinsic Value To The Client At All.” GAL posits this question:

 So what value is there to the client in being big? Oh sure, big law has developed a method to bill clients more hours and to drive its own internal revenue stream. There is no question that big law is the singularly perfect business model for that. But, I am talking about the client. I am talking about providing value to the client. Value defined as efficiency. Value defined as skill. Value defined as the best legal resource per dollar. I can’t think of a single advantage that big law has on those issues. Can you?

Dan Hull picked up the same theme here.  I thought I might pick up on the discussion and try to answer the question, at least from my perspective.

Let me provide a bit information about me that no doubt colors my thinking.  When I left law school, I joined a firm of 70 lawyers, firmly “mid-sized” by then-existing Chicago standards.  That firm grew and grew, and by the time I left 18 years later, it was about 400 lawyers in 5 cities.  I joined a “boutique” litigation firm of 30 lawyers where I have been for the last 5 years.  I’ve never seen life as a solo or even a firm as small as Dan’s.

I have come to believe that firms are a lot like NBA Centers.  Great teams frequently are built around great centers–Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem, Shaq, to name a few.  But not all great teams have great centers–take the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s.  Remember such luminaries as Will Perdue, Stacy King, Bill Wennington?  Probably not.  Michael and Scottie did not need a great center to have a great team. But even centers like the great ones I named have limited value in certain situations.  When North Carolina played four corners offense, who remembers their centers?  When the game is run and gun, the big guys barely have time to get up and down the floor before the game is coming back the other way.

The point of this is that “there is a season for everything.”  Big firms do have their place.  When corporations have huge, immediate problems, they frequently don’t have time to seek out great virtual teams or joint ventures of smaller firms.  They need highly educated, well-trained bodies immediately.  Big firms can provide that resource.  Likewise, when a corporation wants to consolidate its work in order to obtain a better overall fee, big firms have the breadth of skill to be able to offer the client what it needs.  When a transaction is complicated and involves tax, real estate, finance, benefits, labor and corporate issues, big firms tend to be the places that have people with expertise in all of those disciplines.

It used to be that people went to big firm because they had library resources unavailable to the small firm or solo.  In those days of old, big firms had the secretaries who could crank out multiple drafts of briefs, lawyers who could “cite check” and bodies who could search out answers to interrogatories while drafting similar requests so numerous that they could just overwhelm the smaller adversary.  With the advent of the computer and its ubiquity, those advantages are of historical consequence only.

One other thing remains, though it too is changing in my view, however slowly.  That is the “safety” factor.  People buy comfort.  People buy political security.  I’ve heard it said that no one was ever fired for hiring Skadden, at least not until the bill arrived.  But it is inescapably that where consequences matter, there is safety in size, at least if you’re retaining Shaq or Kareem.  There isn’t great security in retaining Will Perdue.

What does all this yammering mean? It means that there is no single right answer to GAL’s question.  It means that some big firms are as worthless as a slow, uncoordinated giant who can’t score, rebound or play defense.  It means that the elite big firms will continue to provide riches to their partners.  It means that sophisticated clients will look beyond size and focus on the team.  Being from Chicago, I’ll stack Michael and Scottie’s teams against any. 

For me, I believe that the best answer is better explained using a military metaphor.  Sometimes the number of boots on the ground matter.  That’s why we have the Army and Marines.  Sometimes, and almost always for the really tough problems, you’re better off with an elite Navy Seal Team or the Delta Force. Small and elite is where you get the best of the best.

  • There are certainly cases where 20 or more lawyers and staff are required. Pat makes a great point about foot soldiers.
    It is interesting though. I sometimes go up against the largest companies with the biggest big law. Often, I don’t see their advantage in the court room at all. I can usually handle the paper and motion war. What we lack in numbers, we make up for in efficiency and strategy. Sometimes big law litigation is little more than a lot of activity and little bang for the buck.
    The number and types of cases that really require big law foot soldiers (Mass Tort Defense) are growing fewer by the day. I see a day where I can put together a team of 20 of the best people from multiple firms, big and small, in order to put “the best” feet on the ground. Technology makes it possible to collaborate as though we were all in the same room.
    Great post Pat. Thanks for linking to us and starting the discussion which is criss-crossing the blogosphere. Someone has to get the question on the table. Maybe more big company clients will start to ask the same questions someday soon. Does BigLaw really have the advantage? Can they really deliver the value we deserve?