Impact of Economic Downturn on Maryland Lawyers

“The Maryland Lawyer” section of the Maryland Daily Record today has an interesting article on the impact of the economic slowdown on Maryland lawyers and the fears of law students looking for a job. The article reports that a number of law firms nationally are “axing” lawyers, including Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, Dechert LLP, Clifford Chance LLP, and Thelen, Reid, Brown, Raysman & Steiner LLP. (I had originally included McKee Nelson LLP on the list because they were included in the Daily Record article. I have since been corrected by email by them that “McKee Nelson conducted a voluntary program last October through which a number of capital markets lawyers volunteered to take partially paid sabbaticals to work for not-for-profits, transfer to other areas of practice, take buyouts, or seek jobs with our clients.”) Other firms such as Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP are limiting their summer associates and Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal LLP has taken back job offers, presumably to incoming lawyers.

To really scare big firm lawyers, the article mentions the 1992 dissolution of the Baltimore mega law firm of Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman.You can always gauge the legal market in Maryland by the reaction to the mention of the Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman breakup. In the best of times, the mention of that ghost brings on “That could never happen to us” chuckles. During a bad legal market in Baltimore, any mention of that dissolved firm evokes some response in a self-conscious “That could not happen to us. Right? Right?” tone.

The prospect of the collapse of one of Baltimore’s major law firms would be very unlikely because today big law firms are run more like a real business than they were in 1992. As this article points out, Frank Bernstein probably could have been saved if they had terminated partners, an unseemly practice in 1992 but de jour today. The old days of making partner and becoming a “made man” are long gone, which makes a lot more economic sense for a law firm facing a downturn in the market.

This article makes clear that Venable, Miles & Stockbridge, and Piper DLA are in public denial about the impact an economic slowdown/recession has on their firm, pretending that the Baltimore-Washington market is somehow significantly more immune from an economic downturn than other markets. I think these lawyers are smart enough to be preparing for the impact of a downturn in the legal market and are taking steps to mitigate their risk.

Accident and medical malpractice lawyers tend to think they are immune from an economic slowdown because litigation generally remains constant in good and bad economic times. But there is some impact because many lawyers handling real estate and other economically sensitive areas of the law migrate to litigation – specifically personal injury – during economic downturns, which does have some impact on personal injury lawyers.