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May|June 2003

Esq., RIP

By Lincoln Caplan

THE BOSTON LAW FIRM OF HILL & BARLOW was founded in 1895 by the lawyer who handled the doomed appeal of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian anarchists hastily convicted of murder and executed by Massachusetts in a case that sparked international protests and stained American justice. That kind of advocacy—for the underdog, in a noble cause—helped define the firm's strength: a dedication to "matters of character."

Hill & Barlow lawyers have traditionally demonstrated this dedication through their commitment to the profession. The firm has produced admired specialists in the law of architecture and entertainment, and its lawyers have been counsel of choice when other Boston lawyers have gotten into trouble. But they've also defined their character through major civic undertakings and pro bono cases. Hill & Barlow alumni include three former governors of Massachusetts, six sitting state and federal judges, and the current head of the FBI. An early partner founded the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and lawyers at the firm defended a couple of Harvard professors against Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunt.

While quirky in a Boston-is-the-Hub sort of way (when other firms expanded to New York City, it launched a satellite office on Martha's Vineyard), Hill & Barlow was a firm that able lawyers chose over fancy practices elsewhere because its work was more interesting and its approach more civilized. At least until recently—when the firm's 44 partners shocked the Boston bar by voting to dissolve the 130-lawyer firm.

THE FIRM'S DEMISE IS JUST ONE RECENT EXAMPLE of the triumph of a new model that is transforming legal practice. A generation ago, relatively few law firms had more than 130 lawyers, and it was rare for firms to operate outside a single city. Today, firms of that size aspiring to engage in a top-level business practice, no matter how good their lawyers and their reputation, are generally too small to compete. Piper Rudnick, the national firm that picked up the largest piece of the Hill & Barlow practice (and has counseled this magazine), has 900 lawyers in 13 offices. Last year, The National Law Journal listed a dozen firms with a thousand or more lawyers.

The transformation of the practice was brought about by changes in the market for legal services. Deals are bigger and more complex and unfold in several time zones simultaneously, so major corporate and financial clients require the counsel of lawyers on a larger scale.

It was also accelerated by changes in the market for lawyers. A generation ago, few lawyers got rich from the practice of law. Today, as a result of higher hourly rates, more billable hours, and bigger premiums paid for work in successful deals, it's common for lawyers to make small fortunes—annually. If they don't, or if their fortunes are smaller than competitors' at other firms, they and their firms often feel they have to change. In the case of Hill & Barlow, this meant first trying to squeeze more money out of its practice and then splintering into pieces that fit more profitably into other firms.

Piper Rudnick makes a polished case that a mega-firm has the flexibility and the resources to accommodate different professional values. A large firm can encourage lawyers to spend time working on pro bono cases and bankroll institutions like Piper Rudnick's Marbury Institute, which is dedicated to maintaining high standards of professionalism. "We could not afford to do this if we did not have the resources that come with being big," said Jeffrey Liss, the firm's chief operating officer.

But big firms are big business, and these days the elite bar is talking more intently about strategic mergers than civic commitments and other expressions of principle. Law has become more an industry than an art. Law firms, like those in other industries, have been forced to respond aggressively to the dictates of the market to meet the needs of their corporate clients.

Academics who study legal practice see the demands of these corporate clients having a paradoxical effect: The market has continued to increase the size of the mega-firms, while at the same time their clients have come to view them as less and less important. They treat their lawyers less like trusted counselors and more like technicians-for-hire whose advice a company feels free to disregard if it isn't what the company wants to hear. In an era of post-professionalism, as Herbert Kritzer of the University of Wisconsin has labeled it, lawyers are being reduced to legal processors and legal information engineers.

Alumni of Hill & Barlow are likely to make a lot more money in their new jobs. Wherever they've ended up, though, in contrast to what they did at their old firm, they aren't likely to attribute their new success to matters of character.

Lincoln Caplan is the editor and president of Legal Affairs.

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