BIGLAW AND THE BLACK SWAN

After reading my novel, The Partnership, an insightful observer wrote that its themes “sound like a biglaw version of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Drawing out the comparisons between your book and Taleb could fill many blog posts.”

This is the first.

Taleb’s title derives from the discovery of what everyone knew didn’t exist. In the Old World, universally reported human experience pointed unambiguously to a single conclusion: All swans were white. Then came the discovery of Australia and its black swans.

The lesson: Widely accepted truths often turn out to be false. Relying on models of the past to anticipate the future can be a fool’s errand, especially if it ignores the wholly unexpected Black Swans that actually shape history. Who imagined that Bill Gates’ boyhood fascination with computers would lead to Microsoft, or that Mark Zuckerberg’s college dorm room at Harvard would be the birthplace of a revolutionary social networking phenomenon?

Black Swans can be good or bad — but they are always transformative. Most of us fail to consider them because we tend to theorize about the future in specific and limited ways from prior experience. For example, Taleb notes, the French built the Maginot Line to defend against German attack following the Great War, only to watch Hitler zip around it during a greater one, World War II.

“What did people learn from the 9/11 episode?” he continues. “Did they learn that some events, owing to their dynamics, stand largely outside the realm of the predictable? No. Did they learn the built-in defect of conventional wisdom? No. What did they figure out? They learned precise rules for avoiding proislamic terrorists and tall buildings.”

The Black Swan came out in 2007 and was a best-seller before the Great Recession — an event that others began calling a Black Swan, although Taleb said it didn’t qualify. Rather, that downturn replays previous Black Swan events — including the 1982 bank failures, 1987 market crash, and 1998 collapse of Long-Term Capital Management — from which intelligent people persistently failed to learn. So-called financial experts with MBAs had lost fortunes betting that such Black Swans were so improbable that they could be ignored. According to Taleb, these empty suits persevered and suckered others into accepting their discredited models, only to have them fail yet again.

So how could this relate to Biglaw? After all, it has enjoyed a 30-year run as straightforward metrics — billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios — enabled large firms to produce staggering wealth for their owners. Even as many positions disappeared and revenues remained flat or declined at some firms, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 continued to rise.

The dominant Biglaw model is working, right?

Only until a Black Swan appears. It would be presumptuous to predict its form or timing. Indeed, the Black Swan’s essence is its serendipity, coupled with its power. It strikes when overconfidence creates complacency and vigilance takes a vacation.

So for Biglaw, accepting conventional wisdom means following managers (few of whom are leaders — a crucial distinction) who focus on  supposedly proven metrics that have made them rich. They let free markets dictate decisions; they ignore things that don’t impact this year’s bottom-line; they watch their equity partner profits trees grow to the sky.

Where in all of this might Biglaw’s Black Swans lurk?

The candidates are too numerous for thoughtful consideration in a single article. Some examples: increasing attorney dissatisfaction at all levels; client resistance to hourly billing regimes; the displacement of a professional ethos with business-school metrics aimed at short-term profit-maximization; prospective lawyers’ growing awareness of Biglaw’s darker side.

But many of us already know about these difficulties, which makes them less likely Black Swan candidates. Then again, the Black Swan need not come as a surprise to everyone. For too long, most Biglaw managers have been oblivious to the profession’s growing challenges; too many behave as if they still are. As Taleb notes, a well-fed turkey that becomes fatter as Thanksgiving approaches is amazed to encounter the ultimate Black Swan event — its slaughter. But the butcher always knew what was coming.

I’ll add one more to the list:

Australia has pioneered a new regulatory regime that allows outsiders — non-lawyers — to invest in private law firms. Some are now publicly traded. http://www.abanet.org/legaled/committees/Standards%20Review%20documents/AnthonyDavis.pdf

Lawyers in Great Britain have begun preparing to follow that lead when the Legal Services Act becomes effective next year.  http://www.law.com/jsp/law/international/LawArticleIntl.jsp?id=1202463691626

Could Biglaw’s ongoing transformation to a species of Big Business culminate in non-lawyer shareholders and boards? It’s a frightening prospect — but not so scary that equity partners are likely to forego the enormous short-term windfalls they’d reap from initial public offerings (IPOs) of their firms’ stock. Most view themselves as disproportionately responsible for their own success and will be content to let the next generations fend for themselves in a bleak professional landscape.

Could the same country that introduced the first black swan to the world be exporting something far more momentous?

3 thoughts on “BIGLAW AND THE BLACK SWAN

  1. “or that Mark Zuckerberg’s college dorm room at Harvard would be the birthplace of a revolutionary social networking phenomenon?”

    The founding of Facebook may not be the best analogy. The complete story of Facebook may never be known, but a lot has come out since the original Harvard Connection lawsuit was settled and the official Zuckerberg version appears to have some fantasy to it. Maybe that’s attractive to a novelist, though I take it you are not writing fiction here. Here is a link to a good recent account of the story. http://www.businessinsider.com/how-facebook-was-founded-2010-3

  2. As a fellow trial lawyer once remarked, “I don’t have a dog in that fight.” Notwithstanding disputes over details surrounding its origins, Facebook was a Black Swan and Zuckerberg, a Harvard student at the time, was — and still is –central to its existence.

  3. Steven,

    Great post! I would add to the possibilities the scandals at firms that have collapsed from rogue partners running dubious practices.

    Firms continue to grow in size and scope to many thousands of lawyers across the globe, handing increasingly complex matters. Fewer partners in power come from the original associate class. Meaningful review of integrity risk becomes harder to implement.

    Small firms blow up all the time, but with far less impact on innocent employees, clients, and so on.

    As for law firms going public, it is mind-boggling to consider taking them public and subjecting them to registration statements, quarterly reports, press releases, and audits — let alone the inevitable SEC investigations, shareholder lawsuits, short-selling scandals, and the like.

    Atticus Taleb

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