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Big Law Firms Are in 'Crisis,' Retired Lawyer Says

Big Law Firms Are in 'Crisis,' Retired Lawyer Says

Photograph by Tim Klein

Steven Harper worked for 30 years in Big Law. Now he’s blowing the whistle.

A recently retired partner of the formidable Chicago-based firm of Kirkland & Ellis, Harper has a new book out called The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis. It should be required reading for anyone in the large-law-firm world—and especially anyone who thinks they want to get into that business.

Harper tells a grim tale. While he enjoyed his long and lucrative career, he now sees the law biz in a steep decline. He chronicles a vast oversupply of new lawyers, many of whom can’t find rewarding jobs; a shameless legal education establishment that continues to entice applicants with exaggerated promises of lucrative careers; and large-law-firm management teams blinded by greed and incompetence.

One result of this mess is the spectacular implosion of august firms such as Dewey & LeBoeuf, which Harper recounts in a trenchant case study (and which I analyzed here last April).

With the barely disguised joy of someone just sprung from prison, Harper is speaking truth to power on an entertaining blog called The Belly of the Beast, and in Op-Eds such as this one in the New York Times about a billing scandal involving the titanic DLA Piper firm.

I asked Harper in a phone conversation whether his former partners who still practice appreciate his flamethrower criticism. He acknowledged that he had burned a few bridges. In a surprising number of cases, though, big-shot lawyers tell him they’re glad he’s speaking out, he said. “They know that ‘short-termism,’ the relentless focus on per-partner profits and how to get them up, has had all kinds of bad effects,” Harper says. “They’re glad to see these issues out in the open.”

If they’re smart, lawyers, would-be lawyers, and corporate clients will consider seriously what Harper has to say.

Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador.

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