Robin Sparkman
(Photo by Maggie Soladay)

This issue is devoted to The Am Law 200′s lateral news. I also have my own job change to announce. In late January, I’ll start as the inaugural CEO of StoryCorps, the national oral history/journalism project. As I wind up 12 years at ALM (half at our sibling publication Corporate Counsel and the rest at The American Lawyer), I’m filled with tremendous gratitude and appreciation for my wonderful colleagues and our readers.

This transition has also been a time for me to reflect back on my six years covering large law firms. There are two trends, in particular, that have surprised me over the last few years and that reflect Big Law’s split personality.

I’ve been deeply impressed by The Am Law 200′s commitment to pro bono. In 2012 alone, these lawyers donated 4,856,093 hours of free legal help. At some firms, say Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and Jenner & Block, attorneys are always expected to have a pro bono matter in the works. The idea of helping the indigent is embedded into their workplace culture.

Certainly, many firms can do more, especially the ones that are firmly ensconced at the top of The Am Law 100. But this commitment—whether it’s exemplified by Robert Sheehan, the former executive partner at Skadden, who has thrown himself into helping the inner city youth program Harlem RBI, or Wachtell’s Marc Wolinsky, who recently helped win a new trial for a man convicted of manslaughter in a barroom brawl—is commendable. There are several other professions that have profit margins that are similar to Big Law but lack the same sense of noblesse oblige.

The other thing that amazed me over the last few years is the darker side of law firm life. From both our profits per partner rankings and our other reporting, it’s been breathtaking to see what firms are paying for talent. People who are coming out of government with no business are raking in the zeros. Private equity lawyers, white-collar gurus: $6–10 million has become the new normal for these practitioners. You can certainly make the argument that they’re worth it—look at how much revenue they can or are expected to bring into their firms. But what intrigues me is how the free agency mechanism in the marketplace has accelerated and, concurrently, reached down into the lower tiers of firms.

This every-man-for-himself mantra has also had a destabilizing impact on the Am Law 200 firms. Partners think of themselves and their potential portability in a way they never did a generation ago. Managing partners lie awake at night doing the math—what happens if So-and-So leaves—and wondering who they can lure to their firms in return. These bidding wars for talent will only grow; they’ll expand to other practices and regions as those areas thrive.

This pay-for-(hopefully continued)-performance has its upsides. Firms, especially upstart ones, can buy business and grow quickly. But the downside is the insecurity and unease that these big moves create among everyone else who isn’t being wooed. There’s no going backward. Free agency is now part of the new world order at firms, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Thank you for reading.