The past few decades have witnessed an explosion in the size of the largest US law firms, and a widely accepted narrative holds that this has had a negative effect on the well-being and professional satisfaction of lawyers practicing at these firms. In an important exploratory study and new paper, When Does Big Law Work?, forthcoming in Marquette Law Review, Professor Abe Cable challenges this narrative and develops two counter-narratives to enrich and complicate our understanding of the effect of firm size on lawyer satisfaction. He grounds these narratives in a series of interviews with lawyers whose small(er) firms had merged into large ones. These lawyers, he observes, provide a sort of “natural experiment for testing the effect of firm size on similarly situated lawyers.”
Professor Cable finds that while a larger firm does have a negative impact on the professional satisfaction of some attorneys, for others it is neutral or even positive. Firm size may not matter much to a lawyer’s day-to-day experience if, for example, the firm essentially serves as a confederation of rain-making partners’ “fiefdoms.” And greater size may increase satisfaction if it relieves the stress of excessive dependence on a few big clients or cases. Professor Cable articulates other possible factors to flesh out all three narratives—negative, neutral, and positive—painting a nuanced picture of each.
Professor Cable highlights four factors that seem to play a key role in determining which “narrative” a lawyer finds herself in at a large firm: seniority, practice area, the role of the local office, and the manner of firm growth. Generally, seniority seems to insulate an attorney to some degree from possible negative effects of firm size, and professional development for young attorneys may be more challenging in large than in small firm settings. Firms that grow quickly through mergers rather than slowly and organically seem to experience growing pains that can negatively affect attorney satisfaction. The role of an attorney’s practice area and characteristics of the local office are more complicated and could cut either way in terms of how their interaction with firm size affects lawyer satisfaction.
In laying out these factors and narratives, Professor Cable emphasizes that his study is “exploratory” rather than “confirmatory,” and the final section of paper sets out a plan for further research based on his findings. Importantly, he also considers how law-school faculty and student advisors might tailor their career advice to account for the varied experiences attorneys have at larger firms.
Professor Cable’s rich and nuanced portrait of how firm size interacts with other variables to affect lawyer satisfaction is an important contribution to our understanding of the evolving law-firm landscape and what it means for the legal profession. As with so much in this vale of tears, the right answer—“it depends”—is not necessarily the catchiest. Professor Cable’s study should be of profound interest to those with a theoretical concern for or practical stake in law-firm organization and attorney well-being.