Of all the occupational golden ages to come and go in the twentieth century—for doctors, journalists, ad-men, autoworkers—none lasted longer, felt cushier, and was all in all more golden than the reign of the law partner.
There was the generous salary, the esteem of one’s neighbors, work that was more intellectual than purely commercial. Since clients of white-shoe firms typically knocked on their doors and stayed put for decades—one lawyer told me his ex-firm had a committee to decide which clients to accept—the partner rarely had to hustle for business. He could focus his energy on the legal pursuits that excited his analytical mind.
Above all, there was stability. The firms practiced a benevolent paternalism. They paid for partners to join lunch and dinner clubs and loaned them money to buy houses. When a lawyer had a drinking problem, the firm sent him off for treatment at its own expense. Layoffs were unheard of.
Perhaps more importantly, the security of the legal profession lodged itself inside our cultural imagination. For generations, the law functioned as a kind of psychological safety net for the ambitious and upwardly mobile. If you wanted to be a writer or an actor or a businessman, you could rest assured that law school would be there if your plans fell through. However much you’d maxed out your credit card, however late you were on your rent, you were never more than an admissions test and six semesters away from upper-middle-class respectability.
“Stable” is not the way anyone would describe a legal career today. In the past decade, twelve major firms with more than 1,000 partners between them have collapsed entirely. The surviving lawyers live in fear of suffering a similar fate, driving them to ever-more humiliating lengths to edge out rivals for business. “They were cold-calling,” says the lawyer whose firm once turned down no-name clients. And the competition isn’t just external. Partners routinely make pitches behind the backs of colleagues with ties to a client. They hoard work for themselves even when it requires the expertise of a fellow partner. They seize credit for business that younger colleagues bring in.