Watch for falling dominoes

I don’t think Detroit’s automakers scored a $17 billion care package from the White House because anyone seriously thinks the cash will staunch the gaping holes in their business models and turn them into American Toyotas. More likely, the US government feared a massive ripple effect throughout the faltering wider economy if even Chrysler went belly-up, let alone GM. As the analysts at Stratfor put it last month, when the patient (the economy) is on life support, you don’t give it a healthful purgative that puts it into a coma.

There’s something instructive about this development for the legal industry as well. You’ve been reading a lot, here and all over the blawgosphere, about the recession’s impact on law firms. Today brought us one of the grimmer forecasts, and when it comes from Prof. William Henderson at the ELS Blog, you need to take it seriously. Bill looks at massively over-leveraged US law firms and sees bad things ahead:

[W]ith the potential for historically low collection rates, a large proportion of Biglaw firms are in one hell of a vise.  Salaried lawyers represent fixed costs.  And even if you lay them off, managers are under intense pressure to pay a reasonable severance (e.g., 6 months pay) to preserve the firm’s reputation for an eventual recovery.  Further, firms with the most human capital leverage will nonetheless be stuck with vast expanses of Class A office space under lease terms negotiated during the salad days.  If Biglaw revenues go down 20% for the fiscal year, which is certainly in the realm of possibility for many firms with large capital market practices, profits could dive by 50% or more.

Similar to what happened at Heller Ehrman, the grim financials could put the firms in violation of their bank lending agreements, see Drew Combs, Why Heller Died, The American Lawyer (Nov. 2008), thus requiring partners to pony up more cash.   Sensing trouble, lawyers with the most options start heading for the doors, initiating a sudden and rapid death spiral.  In short, there is good chance that several hallowed Biglaw firms, particularly those with weak balance sheets, will cease to exist sometime in early to mid 2009.

Large firms, especially those in the US that were deeply committed to corporate work, look most vulnerable to the rising economic winds. But really, I don’t see any size or type of practice in Canada, the US or the UK that won’t take some kind of hit from the recession, anywhere from a glancing to a body blow. The question is whether the collective force of those hits will be enough to seriously stagger the private bar as a whole. If not, then we’ll muddle through alright. If so, well….

Vehicle manufacturers are at the heart of the auto industry, but of course they’re not its sole residents. Surrounding them is a circle of  parts suppliers, local dealerships, service depots, used car showrooms, and other ancillary businesses. Then comes a further concentric circle of dependent businesses like gas stations, car rental agencies, transport truck companies, satellite radio installers, and so on — not to mention all the businesses that depend on employees of these inner-circle companies to buy, rent, visit or consume their products and services. Fear of a domino effect through these circles was a powerful argument in favour of government help.

Likewise, although private law firms lie at the heart of the legal industry, there are many other ancillary industries, companies and institutions whose own business models assume a certain level of spending and productivity by the private bar. While we might understandably fixate on the ups and downs of law firms of all shapes and sizes, we should also keep an eye on the long lines of dominoes radiating out from the private bar, because some of them look none too steady either.

Bill Henderson links to an insightful post by Michael Cahill at PrawfsBlawg, who raises the spectre of a “legal education bubble.” The problem of law school tuition increases have usually been passed on to big law firms, which are supposedly poised to pay law graduates (or some of them, anyway) equally high salaries; but if those firms stumble or fall, who’ll help new grads dig themselves out of debt? Not only that, but with credit still mostly frozen, who will lend law students that tuition in the first place? And with fewer private-law jobs available at any salary, Michael worries, when does a law degree slip below the cost-benefit line? If even some of these consequences come to pass, the legal education industry will be looking at a major contraction of its own.

Then there’s legal publishing. If both firms and schools are forced to cut back, law book publishers have a new set of problems, because that’s basically their entire marketplace. Those that have branched out into online legal research will find little help, because they haven’t really diversified: the markets for e-research are pretty  much the same as for books. Legal periodicals depend heavily on advertising from law firms and their suppliers. I’ve already heard of planned cuts to law firm marketing and advertising budgets for 2009, and suppliers like software companies are going to find it harder to sell upgrades and new releases when people are more willing to hold on to their older versions and wait for prices to fall. And so forth.

Lawyers in private law practice tend to forget sometimes that they serve a more complex and important function in this industry than mere sellers of legal services. They’re also buyers of private law practice supplies, everything from students to books to software to newspapers to photocopiers to recruiters to memberships and much more. In The Elastic Tournament, Profs. Henderson and Marc Galanter point out that “large law firms have become immensely fragile institutions.” But really, the entire legal services industry is a fragile ecosystem, and if the center should ever give way, the domino effect could be extraordinary. And I don’t think anyone’s preparing a bailout package for that.


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