The Grisly Pieces — When Law Firms Break Apart

That law firms break apart – and even why they do – are not the compelling topics they once were. I’m more interested now in the chunks that firms break into. (Oh, I’m still interested in why firms collapse, too.)

Law firms are not like other organizations. Fewer ties bind them together. Professor Bernie Burk at UNC Law School has written a big article about this. Big But Brittle: Economic Perspectives on the Future of the Law Firm in the New Economy (with D. McGowan), 2011 Colum. Bus. L. Rev. 1 (2011). So, when law firms (large or small) hit a bump, they’re more prone to come apart than other kinds of organizations.

I have started to wonder whether law firms are organizations at all.

I’d like for somebody to look at the chunks that law firms break into and see what’s to be learned. Where groups split off intact, what keeps the smaller groups together? To what degree do firms break up into groups and to what degree do the lawyers go in ones and twos? Who ends up not leaving? Who gets left high and dry? Why?

I’d love to have explanations for what happens in each case. That would tell us something about what holds lawyers together (a “stress test”).

My theory is that big law firms are really little more than networks, except more expensive. With social networking and other technologies, the partnership form becomes less and less necessary. Other structures may be more efficient than multi-hundred-lawyer partnerships; and those structures may be more natural and more consistent with professionalism.

So, I want somebody to take a look at the pieces that firms break apart into – sort of like they do on these TV autopsy shows – and hold up the grisly pieces for analysis.

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