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The Future of the Philadelphia Lawyer

March 31, 2008

Philadelphia Magazine’s April 2008 cover story focused on the changes in the legal profession in Philadelphia. 

The article acknowledged Philadelphia’s rich legacy of legal talent: “In the culture at large, the phrase ‘Philadelphia Lawyer’ means an attorney who’s particularly gifted and crafty — It would take a real Philadelphia Lawyer to get us out of this. But to be a Philadelphia Lawyer in Philadelphia, where there are nearly 16,000 attorneys, where one in five Center City offices is occupied by a law firm, has always meant something even more. Lawyers here are a crucial part of both our economy and our identity.” 

In The Last Days of the Philadelphia Lawyer, Tom McGrath focused on the corporatization and globalization of large law firms in Philadelphia as the focus shifted to the bottom line.  The article specifically focused on Dechert, Morgan Lewis, Cozen O’Connor, Duane Morris and Wolf Block and addressed the “need” for mergers and expansion in to other markets outside of Philadelphia.  With this came increased billable hour requirements, lengthening of the amount of time to make partner, partners being pushed out and the increased pressures to bring in business and only take cases that will generate a lot of income. 

McGrath wrote, “[w]hile lawyers at big firms make more money than ever, there’s a certain sense of ennui among many in the profession. Previous generations of attorneys had the sense that in practicing law, they were serving the public good. A fair number of lawyers today fret that what they do has no more value than selling used cars.”

The problem emerged as “[a] whole generation of once-idealistic lawyers — inspired by the Philadelphia Lawyer legend — all hit middle age, and its attendant crises, at the same time. ‘A lot of lawyers I know are in their basements at midnight, working on a screenplay or novel, trying to become the next Grisham,’ says one attorney. ‘Law school teaches you how to be an asshole, and a bunch of us woke up around age 55 and said, ‘I don’t want to be an asshole anymore.’'”

McGrath blamed the Am Law rankings and the fact that lawyers are “selling their time…which is finite.”  McGrath concluded that “we aren’t seeing the end of lawyers in Philadelphia, but we are almost certainly watching the last days of the mythic creature called the Philadelphia Lawyer.” 

Matters of Time: What’s the Prognosis for Smaller Firms? asserted that boutique firms practicing specific types of law will be best positioned for the future in Philadelphia.  One attorney believed, “in the future you’re either going to see mega-firms or boutiques, without much in between.”

While I acknowledge the trend toward attorneys spending thousands of hours at their desks, it seems overly dramatic to assert that there won’t be any attorneys left in the entire city who are both “gifted and crafty.”  There may be far less than there were 50 years ago, but will the whole city be without any gifted and crafty attorneys?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Angela permalink
    March 31, 2008 3:30 am

    Does Phila Mag want us to go away? LOL. The work is demanding, but not the end of the world. And at the very least, what about criminal defense attorneys? My boyfriend was a public defender and they are certainly crafty and gifted.

  2. Big Firm Guy permalink
    March 31, 2008 3:34 am

    I always assumed that “Philadelphia Lawyers” were plaintiffs attorneys…

  3. John E. permalink
    April 8, 2008 2:49 am

    Having never made Philly Mag’s Top Lawyer survey, I can’t take any commentary the magazine has on lawyers too seriously. . .

  4. Stephanie permalink
    April 8, 2008 3:01 am

    I agree with “John E.” I don’t know where Philly Mag is getting their information.

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