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Unpublished Paper
Big But Brittle: Economic Perspectives on the Future of the Law Firm in the New Economy
ExpressO (2010)
  • Bernard A Burk
  • David McGowan, University of San Diego School of Law

This Article addresses the deceptively simple questions why, up to the onset of the recent recession, law firms continued to grow at the rapid rate and in the unusual configuration that they have exhibited for over 40 years; and whether lawyers, clients, law students and law schools should expect familiar trends to reassert themselves as the economy improves. We show that the copious academic theorizing addressing these questions (focusing on such notions as diversification, asset specificity, “tournament” theory, and reputational and agency-cost concerns at the level of the firm as a whole) has proved ineffective at explaining or predicting actual events to date, and thus offers little guidance for the future.

We suggest two perspectives that appear more consistent with the available empirical evidence, and thus more likely to predict future trends. The first perspective shows that the core members of a professional service firm can mutually increase the value of one another’s connections and reputation in a manner that can increase the mutual gain with the size of the core group, and thus stimulate firm growth and help bind the firm together—though only somewhat loosely—as it grows. This perspective is new to the literature on law-firm economics, and helps explain why law firms have long continued to get larger despite ordinary diseconomies of scale, though with a certain brittleness reflected in the lateral mobility common in this day and age. The second perspective brings long-established economic principles concerning technological innovation and transaction costs to bear in the context of the elite law firm, where they have been largely overlooked in the commentary to date. We argue that reductions in particular transaction costs and in the cost of certain key inputs are helpful in explaining a number of the trends in the staffing and pricing of legal services documented in recent years.

We apply these perspectives to derive a range of predictions for law firms and law schools in the years to come. We conclude that, despite rumors of the “Death of Big Law,” the large firm is here to stay, but in an evolving configuration with profound implications for practicing and aspiring lawyers, as well as the law schools that prepare them for the increasingly competitive and increasingly global markets for their services.

  • law firms,
  • professional firms,
  • economics of law firms,
  • economics of professional firms,
  • theory of the firm,
  • history of the law firm
Publication Date
September 12, 2010
Citation Information
Bernard A Burk and David McGowan. "Big But Brittle: Economic Perspectives on the Future of the Law Firm in the New Economy" ExpressO (2010)
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