By Robert A. Helman
Mayer Brown LLP
I began practicing law in 1956 at Isham, Lincoln & Beale, a first-rate firm formed in 1872 but no longer in existence. I was paid $4,800 a year - the top "going rate" at the leading Chicago firms. The work was demanding, but not suicidal; it allowed time for family, pro bono work and professional and civicactivities - all of which were encouraged.
I loved the work, and believed myself to be fairly compensated. Times were much different in the 1950s, however: Many leading law firms did not hire blacks, Jews or women (except as secretaries). For example, I was the first Jew hired by my firm. Fortunately, that pernicious discrimination is now almost entirely gone. I became a partner in 1965; my compensation was $25,000 a year.
In 1967, because of the conflicting interests of the firm's two largest clients, five of us left, on an entirely friendly basis, and moved with several clients to Mayer Brown, which with our arrival had 100 lawyers - along with Kirkland & Ellis and Sidley Austin, one of the three largest firms in Chicago; a situation that still obtains, although the numbers are of course much larger. I came in as an income partner at $33,000 a year. The culture at Mayer Brown was and continues to be supportive, friendly and informal. I found that the advantage of a much larger firm was the opportunity to work with, and learn from, more outstanding lawyers and to represent a larger and more diversified group of clients.
The practice grew, and mine along with it. In 1970, at the request of two large clients, we opened an office in Washington - our first branch. We made comfortable incomes and took pride in our work and our commitment to the firm's clients and one another. I confess to being a romantic about that.
In October 1984, I became head of the firm. At the time, we had 300 lawyers. I retired as chairman in 1998 under an age-limit policy that I had sponsored years before. By then, we had more than 800 lawyers. Mayer Brown is now a worldwide firm with more than 1,700 lawyers and 22 offices.
I recite that history, not as a self-serving exercise, but because it reflects the change that has taken place in the very large law firms in the 54 years since my practice began. The firms have become much more businesslike. Compensation has increased dramatically. Starting salaries are now $160,000, not because of overall price inflation or because the newly graduated are more able than we were, but because the firms are enslaved in a market trap of their own making.
In return for very high compensation, the younger lawyers are expected to work very long hours, not just when clients have emergencies, but to generate revenue - a Faustian bargain that leaves time for little else. Family and personal lives often suffer, as does the opportunity to contribute to the community and the profession. The pyramid to be climbed has increasingly steep sides, and most associates understand they will not become partners.
At all levels, specialization is demanded by the need for efficient allocation of human resources. I am reminded of the classic Charlie Chaplin film "Modern Times." The opportunity that I prized to have a general practice (i.e., to work on corporate matters and litigation) in a large law firm has essentially vanished.
The personal relationships within the very large firms are necessarily attenuated - there are simply too many people to get to know. For many, the practice of law has become less the pursuit of a learned profession and more the pursuit of an increasing income.
Client relationships have also changed, particularly as a result of the growth of law departments. Firm lawyers are increasingly brought in as specialists, and not as counselors and sources of wise advice to senior officers and directors. The lawyer-client relationship has become more commercial and less professional. The general counsel of one very large company said at the outset of our relationship: "Always remember, Bob, the company is my client, and I am your client."
Felix Frankfurter once told a friend that the legal profession could be divided into three groups: the physicists (mostly law professors like himself and select judges who contribute to the advancement of legal thought); the engineers (the remaining professors and a small number of judges and practitioners who bring some wisdom to their work); and the mechanics (all the others). I was privileged in my practice to have been turned to as a counselor - an "engineer" in Frankfurter's terms. Those opportunities for big-firm lawyers serving very large clients are for the most part gone.
This is not a lament! The practice of law continues to be a grand undertaking. It affords the opportunity to help people, to shape behavior, to resolve disputes and to maintain the civil society we prize.
The best lawyers continue to pursue the public calling. The best firms continue to provide excellent legal services and attract the most promising graduates. And many distinguished professional and public careers are fostered every year. Obviously, it is impossible to recapture the "good old days." It is helpful to reflect on how and why we got from there to here, and to remember and maintain the core personal, professional and institutional values that must be preserved and passed on in a markedly changed environment.