In 1991, Galanter and Palay published Tournament of Lawyers: The Transformation of the Big Law Firm, which documented the regular and relentless growth of large U.S. law firms. The book advanced several structural and historical factors to explain these patterns, centering on the adoption of the promotion-to-partnership tournament. Systemic changes in the marketplace for corporate legal services in the intervening years suggest the need for an updated account of the modern large law firm.Using Tournament of Lawyers as a starting point, we propose to fill this void in the literature. Marching through a wide array of empirical evidence covering the last twenty to thirty years, our findings corroborate some of the core theoretical insights of Tournament of Lawyers. For example, the continuous upward growth of the partnership based on the tournament is clearly evidenced by a “smooth” upward trajectory in the partnership ranks while associate hiring hews more closely to the underlying business cycle. On the other hand, the widening ranks of nonequity partnership and permanent “off track” attorneys suggest the emergence of a more complex and elongated tournament structure that applies to both partners and associates. Further, the sheer size and geographic dispersion of present-day large law firms makes it more difficult to create and sustain firm-wide cultural norms, such as collegiality, cooperation, and risk sharing, that may have moderated intrafirm competition under the original “classic” tournament.Under this new model, which we dub “elastic tournament,” the equity core is reserved primarily for partners who control access to key clients. This structure reduces cross-subsidies between lawyers with differential value to the firm, thus reducing the potential for large-scale lateral defections. In this highly atomized environment, individual lawyers within large firms are likely to find it harder to adhere to professional and ethics principles that are at odds with a client's objectives. As a result, zealous advocacy thus becomes of the touchstone of ethical lawyering. Further, notwithstanding its formidable size, the “firm” itself has remarkably little autonomy to pursue noneconomic objectives, such as racial and gender diversity or the training and mentoring of the next generation of lawyers. Although the partnership shares the benefits of successful recruitment, the lack of credible risk sharing reduces the willingness of individual lawyers to invest in firm-wide initiatives that do not simultaneously optimize their own practice. Except in a handful of exceptional cases, we fear that the mediating influence of firm culture is likely to be eroded by the sheer size of the modern large firm. Similar to any commodity market, this model is fundamentally “stable” in the economic sense. Yet, it raises several philosophical and practical issues regarding lawyer independence and the long-term viability of professional self-regulation.

 

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