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Lawyers in private practice lose out to in-house specialists as Biglaw wobbles

Posted by: Laurence Simons 01/10/12

With Christmas sort of around the corner, we will soon all be taking snifters of brandy in hand, wriggling our way into a patterned woollen jumper and getting all misty-eyed and nostalgic by the fire. "Hey, remember the good old days?" we'll say, all at once, in eerie unison. "Remember when we would just run down the road jarring a long wooden stick on a railing? Remember Top Trumps? Remember the smell of fresh cut grass back in the good old days, and grazing your knees? Do you actually remember when Dewey & Lebeouf was a thing?"

Yep, them again. If any one firm has typified the now-shaky ground that Biglaw exists on, it's the very public splintering into dust undergone at Dewey & Lebeouf in 2012. In January, there were murmurs; by March, partners were being jettisoned at every turn. By April it was pretty much all over and now, in October, they are already a footnote. For such a huge firm, it really didn't take long to unravel.

But as Biglaw steps into an uncertain period, Harvard Business Review's Ben Heineman Jr. notes that those in general counsel jobs are seeing an unprecedented rise in demand for their services. It is, Heineman notes, the result of two critical trends among major corporations in the US: a shift in status that now means that a firm's general counsel - not senior partner - is the go-to advisor for chief executives in need of legal, ethical, public policy or corporate citizenship advice; and the related power shift from outside private firms to in-house departments for major companies as a result. And it's a pretty major shift.

"The general counsel is now a core member of the top management team and offers advice not just on law and related matters but helps shape discussion and debate about business issues," says Heineman. It's this shift that has primarily led to a dramatic rise in the quality of in-house specialists as a resulting response to demand.

Secondly, you've got your subtle power shift from private practice to in-house: something that could well be leading the trend for powerhouse firms to team up and merge in a bid to clamber back some of that expertise. "Inside lawyers have broken up monopolies that particular private firms had previously enjoyed with particular corporations," Heineman said.

And Heineman should know. This isn't just the guy on the side of the road with a cardboard sign and some very loud and mad opinions: Heineman is currently a senior fellow at Harvard's Law and Kennedy Schools and contributor to Corporate Counsel who has occupied a number of high-profile positions in law and government. With many predicting the death of Biglaw - the New York Times especially has been holding some deathbed vigils with op-ed pieces this month - the pendulum swing from private practice to in-house by major corporations shouldn't be ignored.