Posts belonging to Category Law Firms & Lawyers

U.S. News Rankings and BigLaw Placement

The annual ritual of debating the U.S. News and World Report law school rankings is being acted out again, as the former magazine issued its 2012 rankings. (U.S. News is now an entirely Internet-based presence, and its school rankings are its raison d’etre.) While Yale Law School is unsurprisingly ranked first again, it is notable that the University of Texas has cracked the virtually static “T-14,” albeit as the fifteenth school (due to a tie with Georgetown). The complete rankings are available here.

Though U.S. News is widely considered the definitive source of rankings for national law schools, when held up against actual placement data it is less clear that these rankings correlate with what arguably matters most, particularly in a bad economy: getting jobs at prominent law firms. The National Law Journal recently came out with its own rankings of the so-called “Go-To Law Schools” (available here). In this list, which purports to rank schools by likelihood of graduates landing BigLaw jobs, two of the perennial top-three U.S. News law schools—Yale and Stanford—do not even make the top 10, while the University of Chicago, Cornell, Columbia, and Penn place first through fourth (ahead of #5 Harvard Law School).

The public policy implications of the country’s legal recruiting process are significant. If plaintiff firms are to compete meaningfully for top legal talent, fee-shifting statutes (and judicial interpretation of them in the form of fee awards) must take into account the economic realities of firms that rely entirely on contingency-fee arrangements. Otherwise, BigLaw will maintain its hold on debt-ridden graduates from elite law schools, ultimately skewing the debate on key legal issues and undermining the enforcement of employee and consumer protections.

Howrey’s Demise and Contingency Fees

In the spate of recent articles about Howrey, which formally ceased operations this week, were the familiar causes of law firm financial catastrophes: partner defections, decline of a once-thriving practice area, and internal squabbling. Less familiar among BigLaw firms, which chiefly generate revenue by hourly billing, is the risk of relying on contingency fees. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Howrey CEO Robert Ruyak cited contingency fee arrangements as having contributed to Howrey’s financial difficulties. The full article is available here. Howrey’s fall is thus a reminder of the truly contingent nature of contingent fees—even more so among firms that rely on contingent fees and judicial approval of fees, such as in class actions, which creates a unique kind of double contingency.

The California Supreme Court has recognized this, citing favorably from Judge Richard Posner’s landmark ECONOMIC ANALYSIS OF LAW: “‘A contingent fee must be higher than a fee for the same legal services paid as they are performed. The contingent fee compensates the lawyer not only for the legal services he renders but for the loan of those services. The implicit interest rate on such a loan is higher because the risk of default (the loss of the case, which cancels the debt of the client to the lawyer) is much higher than that of conventional loans.’” Ketchum v. Moses, 17 P.3d 735, 742 (Cal. 2001) (citing RICHARD A. POSNER, ECONOMIC ANALYSIS OF LAW 534, 567 (4th ed. 1992)). Even so, a handful of trial court judges seem predisposed to reduce negotiated class action fees (and in doing so, no doubt unwittingly, exemplify Judge Posner’s observation). Posner’s Seventh Circuit colleague, Judge Frank Easterbrook, explains that far from being the boondoggle that these judges apparently presume contingent fees to be, “[t]he contingent fee uses private incentives rather than careful monitoring to align the interests of lawyer and client. The lawyer gains only to the extent his client gains. This interest-alignment device is not perfect. . . . [b]ut [an] imperfect alignment of interests is better than a conflict of interests, which hourly fees may create.” Kirchoff v. Flynn, 786 F.2d 320, 325 (7th Cir. 1986).

In other words, contingent fee awards, and the routine application of multipliers, replicate market forces for legal services so that plaintiffs who cannot otherwise afford a lawyer have access to the courts.