M&A by Law Firms

In a bit of news that’s depressing to me personally, my former law firm, Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich, is being acquired by the Piper Rudnick firm. The combined firm will have over 1,300 lawyers in a bunch of offices around the country and around the world.

Piper Rudnick, the East Coast half of this combination, followed from the combination of old-line firms Piper & Marbury (of Baltimore) and Rudnick & Wolfe (of Chicago) only 5 years ago. The West Coast half, Gray Cary is a full 10 years removed from the merger of San Diego’s Gray Cary Ames & Frye and Palo Alto’s Ware & Freidenrich (nee Ware, Fletcher & Freidenrich).

All four of these firms were once noble, local law firms, in the traditional sense: groups of men and an insufficient number of women who actually knew each other, knew their community, knew their clients, and were bound by an actual and ethical vision of what their allegiance to one another was about. In a word, it was about service.

Calling their recent combination a law firm is an exercise in the worst kind of mythology. Law firms disappeared a long time ago, when they crossed the line (let’s call it 100 partners, though that’s as arbitrary as any other number) that functionally prevents all of the partners from knowing — and trusting — each other. Like its peers, Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, certain to be shortened in time to Piper Rudnick, is a multinational law corporation. They’re not law firms any more. They’re law corps.

Little of this is really news. I’m simply disappointed that people who I know and respect at Gray Cary are caught up in it. Law corp M&A isn’t about a large group of partners (or even the majority of the profession) enriching themselves; it’s typically about a small group of partners, often corporate M&A lawyers, who see no difference between the kinds of high-stakes deals they work out for their clients and the deals they can work out for themselves. In both cases, they’ve got other people’s money to play with and an international playground to play on. The rest of the partners are bound by the inertia that characterizes most of the legal profession. They go along for the ride, because they don’t have the money or the nerve to do anything else. This isn’t service at a higher, more complex level. It may be true that multinational corporations can truly prosper only in an ecology of other multinational corporations, but everyone should recognize that these are just big companies reinforcing each other’s bottom line.

As someone who occasionally advises law students on careers in the law, the Gray Cary acquistion (oops; the firms say, “merger,”) prompts me to conclude explicitly something that I’ve felt intuitively for a while: I can’t in good conscience advise anyone graduating from law school to take an entry level job in a multinational law corp. With a handful of exceptions, they are the meat packing plants of the profession, companies that exploit undertrained and overworked young people, and inflict a horrific level of physical and psychic injury in the process. Their output, to paraphrase Bismarck, is the sausage and bologna of the law.

2 thoughts on “M&A by Law Firms

  1. This is on track with the firm that is now known as Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP.

    Law is a business, especially if the firm you work for is a P.C. 🙂

    And, no one is enslaving anyone to be an attorney, let alone work in a large, multinational law firm (“corporation”). The physical and mental harm brought about by firms are only that if one chooses to be subjected to such harm (or consider such things – like law firm politics and angry personalities — harmful). What we consider a long day nowadays is nothing in comparison to what a laborer may find to be a long day; further, it is much less intense than 16-hour days in a mill (as in yesteryear).

    There is always a choice. Ego gets in the way of some, but not all. And still others are blind to that choice.

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