[The previous essays in this series are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.]

     In John Grisham’s best-selling novel, The Firm (1991), which became a Tom Cruise movie (1993), twenty-five-year-old associate Mitch McDeere discovers that the true purpose of his employer, an extremely well-paying Memphis law firm, is to help mobsters launder money.

     Behind the façade of a “family” atmosphere (a senior partner initially assures Mitch, “We’re a close-knit fraternity.  We’re small and we take care of each other”), fraudulent billing—and not just of the criminal clients—is endemic.

     McDeere’s mentor soon advises him that “[h]e could bill twelve hours each day, every day, regardless of how many hours he actually worked.” 

     Later, that partner (in Gene Hackman’s portrayal, genially louche but deeply troubled) orders, “Every time you look at that file, charge it for an hour. . . . In fact, if the name [of the matter] crosses your mind while you’re driving to work, stick it for an hour.  The sky’s the limit on this one.”

     One of their assignments, he notes, involves “incorporat[ing] three companies under Caymanian jurisdiction.  It’s fairly easy legal work and could be done in Memphis.  But the clients think we must come [to the islands] to do it.  Remember, we’re dealing with people who invest millions.  A few thousand in legal fees doesn’t bother them.”

     A more senior associate explains:

     “There’s always the pressure to bill more and more.  All we have to sell is our time. . . Before they’ll consider you for partner, you’ve got to hit sixty hours a week consistently over a period of years.  No active partner bills less than sixty a week. . . .

     “Most good lawyers can work eight or nine hours a day and bill twelve.  It’s called padding.  It’s not exactly fair to the client, but it’s something everybody does.  The great firms have been built by padding files.  It’s the name of the game. . . .

     “Believe me, Mitch, after you’ve been with us a year you’ll know how to work ten hours and bill twice that much.  It’s sort of a sixth sense lawyers acquire.” 

     By contrast, one analysis of large-firm billing pressures, and of a bankruptcy fraud that resulted in the 1998 imprisonment of a former partner at a major Wall Street law practice, highlights “the importance of an ‘ethical infrastructure’ within an organization: formal policies and procedures, as well as cultural norms, that promote compliance with ethical obligations in the face of competitive pressures.”

     Grisham’s recent sequel, The Exchange: After the Firm (2023), set fifteen years later (in 2005), finds McDeere at the century-old Scully & Pershing, which has “over two thousand” lawyers distributed across “thirty-one cities on five continents. . . .”

     (An “Author’s Note” discloses that “since I’ve always tried to avoid big [law] firms, I have no idea how they function,” and identifies big-firm practitioners whom Grisham consulted in that regard.)

     “In his four years as a partner, [Mitch] had established a reputation as a sort of legal SWAT team leader sent in by [the firm] to rescue clients in distress.”  (McDeere’s wife, Abby, is now “a senior editor at Epicurean, a small but busy press” that specializes in cookbooks.)

     Reflecting the shifting concerns of—and about–lawyers since 1991, in The Exchange the pitfall of (now legitimate) maximum billing is the lawyer’s focus on work to the exclusion of almost everything else. 

     One of the firm’s associates “had never been close” to her father, “primarily because of his ambition to build the greatest law firm in Italy.  His drive kept him at the office or the road far too often.”

     Scully & Pershing requires its lawyers to record 2,500 hours of work each year: “Every lawyer was required to donate at least 10 percent of his or her time to various causes” although about half believed that “[t]hose 250 hours a year could be better spent making money” and improving one’s chances of making partner.

     (Mitch, who had been “driven by greed” to work for the Memphis firm, is now “spending four hours a week working with a homeless shelter in the Bronx and representing clients who were fighting evictions.”)

     Late in the book, an ambitious junior associate observes, “All they care about is billing fifty hours a week.”  Although Mitch had instructed the same associate, “If you want to remain on this case you cannot work more than sixteen hours a day on it,” he now corrects him: “We prefer sixty. . . .”

     At the firm’s headquarters, “From sixty floors up the views of the harbor were even more impressive, though Mitch was far too focused to venture a glimpse.  Those who worked in Manhattan’s tallest buildings were adept at ignoring the views while visitors gawked.”

     That tunnel vision also excludes the interiors of the lavishly-appointed offices.  Visiting from Memphis, a former colleague tells Mitch: “I sat on a bench [in the lobby] and watched the people come and go, the frantic bustling of young, well-dressed professionals, half of them on their phones, frowning, talking importantly. . .

     “No one looks up.  No one takes a moment to appreciate the surroundings, the art, the architecture.  ‘Rat race’ is the perfect description of it.”

     Mitch himself “had reached the point of not slowing down long enough to appreciate the serious money on the walls and floors [of the firm’s various offices].  After a while, they were beginning to blur together.”

     Even when he travels to Libya on business, “His corner room was on the fifth floor with a splendid view of the Mediterranean.  To the northeast he looked down on the ancient walls of the Old City, but he didn’t gaze for long.”

     One agent of the firm describes Libya, where Mitch becomes involved in an attempt to ransom an associate held hostage, as “a murky world. . .  with uncertain loyalties and fragile relationships.” 

     Before the book ends, Mitch will consider whether that warning applies as well to the upper echelons of his firm, and whether to adjust his own priorities.

     And the reader will learn whether The Exchange actually provides both a literal (plot point) and figurative (enjoyment) payoff.

     Also of interest in The Exchange is the involvement of “[t]he Reedmore firm, from London, Libya’s favorite [law] firm, a notorious bunch of arrogant boys who seemed to relish their reputations as world-class a——s.”

     Some might recall from that reference a notable element of Lincoln Caplan’s revealing profile, Skadden: Power, Money, and the Rise of a Legal Empire (1993), which focused on the firm (including its process of selecting new partners) in an effort “to explore the transformation since the Second World War of large American law firms.”

     Thirty years ago, acknowledging a rising profession-wide concern about incivility, Caplan quoted “a partner at a well-known firm that believes it offers a good combination of intensity, detachment, and professionalism”: “’In the American legal system, . . . being a complete a—–e for your client has a high payoff.’”

     In fact, one Skadden partner, as a panelist at an American Bar Association event, stated that, “’We pride ourselves on being a——s.  It’s part of the firm culture.’  (Later, she allowed, the A-word she should have used to drive home the point was ‘animals.’)”

     Caplan reports that in 1991, a firm event featured Skadden Fellows, junior lawyers whom the firm had sponsored for two-year terms with pro bono organizations.

     When asked what he would do differently if he were to begin again, one fellow, who had worked for the Legal Aid Society of New York City, responded:

    “I would be less polite.  I’m basically a very timid person.  For better or for worse, and I think for worse, we’re in sort of a macho profession, and you have to make your adversaries respect you.  What I’ve learned is that manners in the face of stupidity and cowardice are not a virtue.”