The 10-year anniversary of Lehman Brothers’ collapse this September is admittedly a good time to take a look back at the effects of 2008′s financial crisis and their impact on Big Law. But to be honest, the idea to start looking specifically at what was happening with Wall Street firms started percolating before any of us noticed the calendar.
For me, story ideas come in a number of forms, but every once in a while, there will be ah-ha moments where several different bits of information from meetings with law firm leaders, general counsel and consultants, along with the pieces ALM and others write come together to turn a light bulb on. Nuggets from each conversation add up to something we just can’t ignore.
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The look at Wall Street firms specifically came from wide-ranging places: the lateral hires away from those firms; upcoming retirements of architects of many of the financial vehicles that kept those firms so busy; a shift in the types and sizes of deals we were seeing in our Dealmakers of the Year submissions; comments from general counsel that financial services work just wasn’t as difficult as it once was; the rise of the private equity world and the absence of many Wall Street firms from that space; the types of litigation Wall Street firms were turning to that historically wouldn’t have met muster for their business models; and the list goes on.
But with every idea, there is the potential it’s a dead end. This bread crumb trail may have led to no story at all. But as Christine Simmons and I worked on what is now the cover story of The American Lawyer’s September edition, it turned out the story was rich with detail. Not all bad for the Wall Street firms certainly. As the 2017 financial results show, they are still plenty able to keep the lights on. Really expensive lights. But what was increasingly clear was that things weren’t as they always were. And for a group of firms that spends a lot of time going after work that can’t be impacted by market fluctuations, that is a bigger deal than it may be to other subsets of firms skilled in the art of adaptation.
And perhaps that is what the story ultimately uncovered. Wall Street firms aren’t at risk of shutting down—though some analysts predicted a few of them may. They aren’t going to suffer enormous dips in profitability—though it’s getting harder and harder to hedge against that. What Wall Street firms will have to do is adapt. They have to compete. And that is just not a position in the market they are used to facing.
Much of the shift comes from dynamics outside the firms’ control. The financial services industry, particularly investment banks, has simply lost a lot of its cache and power. And for a set of firms that focused more on the banks and less on corporate America or private equity firms, that has a trickle-down effect. The wall of preeminence around 15 of the most elite firms in the world is starting to show cracks. How the firms will fill them—and many are trying—will be fodder for several stories to come.
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