Opening Statement

The new reality for Big Law

Pat Milhizer


December 2013
By Pat Milhizer

As we get closer to the end of another year that feels shorter than the previous year, I’ve been thinking about how much has changed in the legal community since I began covering it about seven years ago.

When I started, headlines presented the latest first-year associate salary increase that law firms consistently approved to attract the top talent out of law school. After the economy plummeted about two years later, the headlines shifted to stories of layoffs, delayed start dates for first-year associates, rescinded offers and fewer corporate deals for lawyers to keep the billing-hour fire burning.

These days, Big Law firms are facing a changing reality — and it’s more than just a smaller number of first-year associates.

Corporate clients are demanding reduced fees and alternatives to the billing-hour model that can cost $800 an hour.

Every story I read on the subject seems like general counsels are firing warning shots to let lawyers know this is real.

General counsels are under more and more pressure to control costs. They may still be willing to pay $800 an hour for the bet-the-company cases, but for the matters that involve less than $5 million in damages, they can go to a midsize firm and not necessarily face a drop in lawyer quality.

At a speaking engagement in November on this subject, I was asked how this reality could affect the number of law firm mergers.

It was a moment in which I had to admit that I was stumped. I don’t know if 2014 will present more merger activity than this year, when, through the third quarter, 58 law firm mergers and acquisitions were announced.

That’s a 41 percent increase compared to 2012. And as I write this on a late November morning, another merger is happening. Merging is one way to not only survive, but thrive.

In this month’s magazine, we present the story of a merger that, by all accounts, is working. Lawyers involved in the 2007 combination of Drinker Biddle & Reath and Gardner Carton & Douglas talked to staff writer Roy Strom about the process before and after the two firms joined forces.

Our last issue of the year also marks another time to name the Chicago Lawyer Person of the Year.

It’s an honor the magazine has issued since 1991 to lawyers and judges with sterling reputations in the legal community and the city and state as a whole.

This year is no exception.

Rita Garman jumped to the top of our list of candidates we internally considered after we learned in September that she would become the second female chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.

I’ve never met Garman, but after reading Strom’s profile, I get the sense she’s the type of person who understands reality and tells it like it is in the most practical and professional way possible.

She overcame the reality of a legal profession that, at the time, wasn’t very welcoming to women. That’s apparent when she talks about interviews for attorney jobs, when she faced questions about whether she could make coffee and whether she planned on having children.

She persevered and eventually became a judge. That’s when her ascent began.

She has held just about every position a judge can have in the Illinois trial and appellate court systems as a judge and presiding judge. Her work in the system has led to expedited child-custody cases. She was also a pioneer on the bench who let children testify in their own abuse cases.

We’re profiling her as she reaches the top of her profession. But it feels like her story is really just beginning.