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My view from the San Francisco office of the 800-lawyer firm with which I practiced until last month was spectacular: Coit Tower, Alcatraz, Marin and the Bay. My view today is of the trees surrounding the two-story building housing my new professional home: an 11-lawyer firm in Monterey. It’s a big change. Whether it ultimately proves one of evolution, devolution or revolution remains to be seen. For me it became, in any event, inevitable. I jokingly tell friends that it all started with the death of George Harrison. The Beatles were my generation, and the death of the second of the four, and this one from illness, seemed another reminder of the tenuousness of life. Each passing, whether of friends, professional colleagues, or societal icons, underscores the verity of the old Miller ad slogan that we “only go around once in life.” One must make the best of that single circuit by striving to enjoy every minute to the fullest extent possible. I found myself deriving less and less pleasure from my professional life — I have always enjoyed law, but elements of the so-called “national firm” practice in which I most recently spent time robbed me of much of that enjoyment — and I decided that I needed to do something about it. There can be no dispute that the practice of law has changed profoundly during my three decades of practice, and my experiences tell me that nowhere are those changes more pronounced than in the largest of firms. I cannot say on balance that those changes are good or bad; each person must make that personal judgment. But I found that they nibbled constantly at my soul, and for me that became unacceptable. Three decades ago, law was a profession practiced singly or in firms of modest size; firms numbering a hundred lawyers were rare. The primary goal was to serve as well as one could the needs of one’s clients, with the expectation that such service would bring both a continuing relationship and a comfortable living. The profession had a certain gentility and quiet dignity; attorneys treated each other with civility, did not advertise and did not try to poach each other’s colleagues. The most senior partners of what were then the largest firms did quite well, earning perhaps three or even four times the compensation of a superior court judge, and eight to 10 times the income of the average wage-earner of the day. Now there are many firms with more than a thousand lawyers, one with nearly 4,000, and firms of 200, 300, or even 400 are considered “mid-sized.” Much of the gentility and dignity has evaporated. The sole guiding principle at many of the largest firms today seems to be the generation of income without regard to client needs or traditional values. Those firms sometimes expend more effort trying to sell clients on services they do not need than they do providing those actually needed. They charge extraordinary hourly rates even for the greenest lawyers and foster an atmosphere in which recording more hours for a client than were worked is not only accepted, but rewarded. The result is impressive; the most highly compensated partners in those firms now receive 15 or even 20 times the compensation of a superior court judge, and in some cases more than 50 times the earnings of the average worker. The drive to increase profits so enormously, it seems to me, is born of two goals. One is to rank higher in Recorder-affiliate American Lawyer magazine’s “profits per partner” chart. Never mind that the reported numbers are as accurate as the predictions of a hot-line psychic, the simple fact that they are reported makes them the benchmark of success for some big-firm lawyers. The other is greed, pure and simple. In fairness, lawyers driven solely by that base objective simply reflect their times. World�Com, Enron, Tyco and others are the poster children of the unconscionable sacrifice of honesty and integrity at the altar of ego and greed. Where Bernard Ebbers, Andrew Fastow and Dennis Kozlowski are accused of violating criminal statutes to achieve their desired goals, law firm leaders of a comparable ethic need not be so brazen. For them fiduciary duty frequently gives way to self-interest, discretion loses out to self-promotion and integrity often is traded for a higher placement in the AmLaw 100 “profits-per-partner” derby, but their conduct is technically legal and thus their consciences, such as they are, remain clear. Partnerships three decades ago made decisions by discussion and consensus. Now many of the largest operate by dictatorial fiat. It may not be as humanistic as the old way, but it is more efficient — some would say ruthless — and far more profitable for those in power. The large number of partners without any power occupy a form of gilded cage; the economic rewards exceed what they could expect in another style of practice but at the cost of long hours, little or no voice, and the sad realization that they are little more than senior associates. Partnerships three decades ago were like marriages, only more stable — partners might divorce their spouses, but rarely would they force a colleague out of the firm. No more. Some large firms expel partners from their ranks for no greater crime than illness or temporary low productivity, or because of a grudge. Thirty years ago if a partner took time off to care for an ailing child or spouse, the remaining partners rallied around, picked up the slack and helped their partner through his or her misfortune. Today they behave more like a herd of zebra, cutting the weakest out of the pack as sacrifice to the circling lions. My growing unease with the value system around me, nurtured by a bit of the dreamy idealism of the 1960s, told me that I no longer should work in the “national” law firm environment. I could have joined a small firm in San Francisco, but there were forces pulling me toward Monterey; my fiancee lives here, it provides scenery without equal and a motorcycle ride down Highway 1 from Monterey to Big Sur and back is 75 minutes of therapy for the cost of a gallon of gas. Location, though, was secondary; the key was to try to find again the values that originally sent me to law school in the waning days of the turbulent 1960s and made the early years of my practice so much more rewarding than the past few have seemed. Maybe I’m naive: maybe small-firm, small-city practitioners have also sold their souls. But so far I see no indication of that. In only a couple of weeks, I’ve sensed the gentility and quiet dignity I remember from many years ago. Small firms have yet to hit the airwaves with slogans such as “lawyers for the global economy” or plaster airport kiosks and newspapers with the ads of which my former firm is so enamored, and I would like to think that signifies at least some adherence to historic principles of honor and discretion. I recognize that I am very fortunate. My children are grown, educated and on their own, and I can afford to live comfortably on less money than I earned in the “national firm.” And I have loyal clients who really don’t care where I practice. Others are not so fortunate; many former colleagues confided that they share my feelings and would love to do what I am doing, but feel trapped in their gilded cages. I have been told by other former colleagues that there is nothing wrong with the modern “national firm” practice and that I am kidding myself if I think that I will find more honor and integrity, or more personal satisfaction, working in a small firm. They may be right, and they may not, but either way it should be a grand adventure. Perhaps in time I’ll let you know how it goes. For now I enjoy looking out my window at the trees. Neil Shapiro moved his media, commercial and IP litigation practice to Kennedy, Archer & Harray in Monterey after spending more than 30 years in big city practice at such places as Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison and Bingham McCutchen. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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