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The 21st-Century Law Firm

Publication Date: 
November 22, 2010
Jerome Kowalski

The Rock Center for Corporate Governance recently published a study on the effect of current economic conditions on the legal profession. Jerome Kowalski, guest columnist for Law360, reports:

The Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University recently published what is perhaps, at least for me, and likely for any interested reader, the most seminal recent study of large law firms, from both an historical perspective and in the face of current economic conditions. It also offers some hedged and qualified predictions for what the future holds for the legal profession.

This remarkable piece of scholarly work, authored by Bernard A. Burk, Academic Fellow at the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, and David McGowan, Lyle L. Jones Professor of Competition and Innovation Law at University of San Diego School of Law, entitled “Big But Brittle: Economic Perspectives on the Future of the Law Firm in the New Economy,” is required reading for every law firm manager, and, indeed for every practicing lawyer, both for law firm practitioners and lawyers serving as in house general counsel.

But, until you find the time to do so, you will find this modest piece — relying heavily on the work of Professors Burk and McGowan and some of my prior work with law firms around the country — an essential guide.


Professors Burk and McGowan divide their paper into three sections: The first describes the golden era of the past 40 years, during which the large law firm emerged as a dominant business model; the second provides an analysis of steps taken by law firms or imposed on law firm by current economic exigencies to allow them to survive The Great Recession; and the third offers some predictions for the future.

As the authors note, “past is prologue”; an understanding of the historical perspective is essential. While their historical narrative is compelling, in this piece I will only deal with the here and now and what lies ahead.