Is BigLaw Getting ‘Woke’ to No-Pants?

We were all someone else once.  I was a pants-wearing corporate lawyer in my former life.

I left BigLaw in 2008.

Back then, people still used BlackBerries and no one used hashtags.

We mourned Heath Ledger.  We dressed up as Sexy Palin for Halloween.  The frothy lives of Blair and Serena provided a much-needed counter-programming to the economic hell that surrounded us.   Britney reminded us, even if for a moment, of who she was. We kissed a girl, we liked it.  We celebrated Obama’s historic November victory – even if we didn’t vote for the guy – because catharsis, history, etc.  For we were expats once, and young, and didn’t need a reason to throw a party; just some strong libations.

I still used a flip phone for my personal calls and texts.

And I wore pants to work.

Every day.

But such was life in BigLaw.  There may have been that one attorney who took time off to raise a family and returned in a non-partner-track capacity.  I knew more than one.  But, we all wanted to be partners.  We weren’t billing 300-hour months for our complexions, our waistlines, our mental health.  We wanted something at the end of the tunnel, and, for many of us, that was at least promotion to senior associate or some guarantee that the coveted Partner title would be ours if we kept our heads down and our noses clean, even if we had to transfer to a mid-sized firm (honestly, a coveted option) to get there.

Fast forward nearly a decade to 2017.  Leo finally won his Oscar. We played Pokemon again.  Words and phrases like manic-pixie-dream-girl and butthurt and hangry are now in the Oxford English Dictionary. I now take my calls on a handheld computer that holds 100 GB.  Obama is no longer president.

And law firms are just getting woke to the idea that flexible work policies might be a good thing.  Like, they can retain their talent without getting spanked in the bottom (line, that is).

Some firms like Blank Rome and Hogan Lovells have had, at least, some sort of informal remote work policy in place for at least a decade.  Other firms, like Morgan Lewis & Bockius, Jackson Lewis, and and Baker & McKenzie were among several firms who announced this April that they were establishing formal flexible workplace policies.

Maybe these firms are responding to the growing threat posed by BigLaw refugees who hang their own shingle.  If an associate plays the corporate Game of Thrones right, he or she can leave BigLaw for a no-pants practice with a host of clients in hand – enough to sustain a virtual legal practice – and take home up to 80% of the fees from all originated matters.

But, how does this affect the giants? This brain drain costs law firms money and resources – each associate that leaves will need to be replaced, and not too many attorneys already in BigLaw are excited to jump to another BigLaw firm.  Most of these smaller firms can’t compete with the behemoths, but that often isn’t the founders’ intention.  Many make the jump for work-life balance reasons, or because their talents are underutilized in a traditional corporate setting.

However, some of these virtual and cloud-based law firms are beginning to give the AmLaw 200 a run for their money.  Take FisherBroyles, for example.  Founded in 2002, they call themselves “a full-service law firm for the twenty-first century”, and have even trademarked the phrases “Next Generation Law Firm” and “Law Firm 2.0”.  Their Careers page sets forth that attorneys can “work from any physical location that you or your client desire.”

Culhane Meadows, a 60-person law firm who recently added a partner from Kirkland & Ellis, allows lawyers to work remotely and take home 80 percent of their billings.  But not even the disruptors can escape disruption – Culhane Meadows was founded by four former FisherBroyles attorneys in 2013.

Is the legal industry finally bending the knee to innovation?


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