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Jerry Maguire, Dewey & LeBoeuf and the future of law practice

In the opening scenes of "Jerry Maguire," the main character, a self-described “shark in a suit” sports agent, has an epiphany and types out a “mission statement” that he then distributes to all the other agents in his firm. He titles it “The Things We Think But Do Not Say” and writes his agency should re-focus on client service and relationships with the players it represents and ultimately become an agency that represents fewer clients and makes less money. When he walks through the room for the first time after his mission statement has been distributed, his colleagues all start clapping. While Jerry basks in his colleagues' applause, one leans to another and says that Jerry will probably last only another week at the agency. If you've seen the movie, then you know that Jerry is fired shortly after distributing his mission statement and that his own words (“Fewer clients. Less money.”) are used against him by the man who fires him -- the wonderfully named Bob Sugar. I mention Jerry Maguire as a way into what has happened at mega-firm Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP in recent weeks and what is means for everyone who practices law. As you have probably read, Dewey & LeBoeuf will almost certainly be forced to close its doors in a matter of days. Most of the partners have jumped ship to other mega firms. For a time, all employees were rumored to have lost their health benefits due to the firm's inability to pay its carrier. Its former managing partner is being investigated by the New York District Attorney. As I understand it, the firm's downfall was caused in no small part by guaranteed payouts to partners based upon their past ability to generate work. The New York Times has called Dewey & LeBoeuf a cautionary tale and has suggested -- much like Jerry Maguire -- that it is “time for lawyers to reshape corporate practice so they make less money, have time to serve other legal needs and approach their work with the independence that would make them true professionals.”

2 comments

  1. You really ought to read more about the Dewey situation before speculating about what it means. Most of what you say here either is out of date, inaccurate, or a lot more complicated than you describe. Even Above the Law is more sophisticated than this, and it is based completely on rumor. The Dewey meltdown (like the Heller and Howrey meltdowns before it) does not present a very good example of the so-called “professionalism” problem caricatured in Jerry Maguire. Dewey failed for a lot of reasons, some of them personal, some of them petty, some of them structural, and some of them the work of the social media, but a lack of professionalism was not one of them. Spring for a subscription to the WSJ and read the Bienenstock interview on the subject if you want to start to get up to speed.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting. Here’s where I got the information you call into question as being inaccurate:
    http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2012/05/14/deweys-bienenstock-discusses-law-firms-demise/

    “Mr. Bienenstock acknowledged that the guaranteed long-term pay contracts given to partners were at the core of Dewey’s problems. He said that at the time of the merger, Mr. Davis tried to lock in the ‘primary business generators’ by giving the partners at both firms four-year deals.

    ‘Then 2008 hit, and there was the first reduction in national legal business in a long time,’ he said. ‘The firm dealt with not being able to pay the income that it wanted to pay to many partners by promising to pay it in future years as the money was earned.’”

    Where appropriate above, links are included (thanks to my awesome editor).

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