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David Boies became a public figure in the litigation over the Florida election returns. But he loomed large in the legal profession long before that. He had established a conspicuous reputation while at New York’s Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and then left to form his own firm when he got restless with the entanglements of big-firm practice. His reputation preceded him, however, so from the very beginning, his new firm had more clients than it could comfortably handle. Earlier, Steve Susman of Houston had had a similar experience, leaving a major Texas firm to open his own litigation shop. And the career of Ted Olson, now solicitor general, has been comparable. Although at a large firm, Olson was located in their comparatively small Washington, D.C., office, where he could manage his practice pretty much as he wished. The common characteristic of these practitioners is their ability to attract business. The combination of recognized professional ability and recognized professional identity makes them professional “binders.” LEGAL HIERARCHY The term comes from a trilogy familiar in professional jargon. The “binders” attract the clients, the “minders” supply the professional skills and a corps of “grinders” does the supportive scut work. In the old days, the binders were lawyers who had long-established relationships with long-term clients of the firm — the senior lawyers who took senior management of important clients down to the club and out to the golf course. Both clients and law firms have changed, however, particularly in the interface between corporate client and law firm. Not only is the legal-services market more competitive, but there also has been a change in the contours of competition. On the client side, the contact now is typically the inside general counsel rather than the CEO. This is because, in the approach of clients to the client-lawyer relationship, technical legal knowledge and acquaintance within the legal profession are more important than social knowledge and social contacts. In-house general counsel believe they know the stars of the profession and believe they can recognize when a star is required. On the law firm side, it is current special competence that counts most heavily, not seniority at the firm or past glories. A firm with a salient star lawyer will be assumed to have a corresponding supporting cast. If the high-visibility lawyer is paying attention (a skill possessed by most high-visibility lawyers), that assumption will be justified. Hence, the client will assume that the binder will have minders and also the necessary grinders. Additional grinders can be hired or borrowed when necessary to staff an especially big case. Law practice has ceased to be localized, in function and reputation. It is nationally based and, in some fields, internationally based. Reputation depends less on personal knowledge, quietly acquired, and more on high-profile events, such as the Florida election litigation or the legal escapades of former President Clinton. The legal services market, accordingly, has come to resemble major-league sports. Whereas in baseball 50 years ago there were dozens of leagues and hundreds of local stars, now there are the major leagues and four thin levels below that. The big-league baseball stars get huge salaries, as do stars of non-team sports, such as golf — witness Tiger Woods. ACCELERATING TREND A colleague of mine — a star in an esoteric specialty — says the trend is accelerating. That could mean that the practice of the future will have a different shape. There could be more large law departments to handle routine matters and to estimate the need for outside counsel; a few big national law firms that handle the basics across the world; larger and fewer regional firms to handle the basics in the regions; a limited number of itinerant high-profile specialists; and a corps of lawyers working case-to-case on contract. One cannot say for sure that this structure is worse than “traditional” arrangements, whatever those were. But it will be different, in technical aspects of practice and in ethical climate. It has been assumed that basic ethical indoctrination is supplied by the law firm. That proposition is based on assumptions about the homogeneity of law firms and the situation of lawyers within firms. The emergence of big-time binders creates doubt about the prevailing assumptions. Geoffrey Hazard, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the nation’s leading experts on legal ethics and a regular NLJ columnist.

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