杜威路博国际律师事务所（Dewey & LeBoeuf）是纽约市的一家顶级律所，而如今它却陷入困境，摇摇欲坠，闻名业内的高薪或许也将不保。以前，人们提到律所通常会想到体面和身份，而如今好像变成了不惜冒险的初创行业？或许，我们可以从杜威路博的衰落史中一探究竟。
斯坦福大学法学院（Stanford Law School）教授罗伯特•戈登目前正在编写一本关于美国法律界的书。他说：“杜威路博或许只是个极端个案。但也可能代表了一种趋势。律所的扩张程度远远超过其他行业。许多律所承诺了他们无法负担的薪酬，并为此不惜大笔借贷。”
华盛顿大学法学院(Washington University Law School )法律专业教授布莱恩•塔马纳哈称：“律所合伙关系是凝聚忠诚度的品牌，但随着合伙人开始待价而沽，一切都随之而改变了。我们还在维持着律师职业门面。但当律师将自己与高薪的CEO或其他有钱的美国人进行比较时，其实是在自吹自擂。”
美国全国法律就业协会（National Association for Law Placement，NALP，跟踪法律行业就业情况）执行董事吉姆•莱波尔特补充说：“上世纪八十年代中期，大批年轻律师进入律所，之后律所合伙人的薪酬便一直在稳步上涨。”为了能够与更具吸引力的互联网行业初创企业竞争，十年后，律所大幅提高薪酬，从顶级法学院抢夺人才。
As top-drawer New York law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf teeters on the edge, likely to fall from high-paid grace, its closely chronicled decline is providing a look into how the once genteel, clubby world of law firms has morphed into a risk-taking, entrepreneurial industry.
"Dewey may be an extreme example," says Robert Gordon, a Stanford Law School professor who is writing a book on the country's legal profession. "But it may also be an example of something that is happening a lot. Law firms have expanded at a greater rate than other businesses. Some have loaded on debt and made promises of compensation that they can't keep."
Most corporate law firms aren't on the skids, but they are being roughed up by the confluence of technology, employee-heavy structures, and corporate cost-cutters determined to lop off a sizeable chunk of their legal costs.
But airing it all in public, through the drip-drip-drip revelations about Dewey's departures and sky-high partner compensation, has laid bare a hustling legal culture. Firms are competing feverishly for lucrative corporate business, working against their counterparts by poaching profit-making partners through the cunning use of eye-popping salary guarantees. This behavior has essentially dismantled the traditional track to partnership, a seat that was usually won after years of in-house training and experience.
"Legal partnerships were brands that drew loyalty, but that changed when partners began to sell themselves to the highest bidder," says Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University Law School in St. Louis. "We still maintain the facade of being a profession. But when lawyers measure themselves against the highest-paid CEOs or the richest Americans, it's a pretense."
As recently as the early 1980s, "being a law firm partner was prestigious, but it was not a way to get rich," recalls Stanford's Gordon. Law firms began to shed their romantic cloak of "service and craft above the mores of the marketplace" as demand for legal services accelerated in the 1970s, he adds.
Law firm associate salaries "began to climb steadily starting in the mid-1980s as armies of young lawyers were being recruited," adds Jim Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, or NALP, which tracks legal industry employment. To compete with glamorous Internet startup recruitment efforts, law firms noticeably hiked salaries a decade later to nab stars from the most elite law schools.
The dot.com bubble burst slowed the competitive race, but legal work was still plentiful, giving firm beginners' salaries another boost in 2006 and 2007. Between 1997 and 2007, first-year salaries doubled from $80,000 to $160,000 at the toniest law firms, often referred to as Big Law. While such law firms employ, at best, only 20% of law school graduates, the big-city firms set the tone for the rest of the industry.
At the top of the law firm pyramid, partner salaries are reaching the levels of top corporate chieftains, with hourly rates reaching as high as nearly $900 per hour, according to a new survey by TyMetrix, Inc., a workforce management company that surveyed 4,000 law firms nationwide.