Legal Newspapers to Jolt the Establishment

It was bound to happen. But it still happened all of a sudden, Three new legal newspapers have been launched, and one of their quests is to illuminate one of the most secretive areas of the economy–the large corporate law firms.

These law factories have played a powerful role in shaping government to the desires of their corporate clients and fending off adequate corporate law enforcement. Now the curtain is about to rise appreciably.

The first law newspaper out of the starting gate was the Legal Times of Washington. It reports on Washington law practice and also has signed up about 30 “leading Washington lawyers” to write columns. In turn these lawyers can parade their skills as practitioners for any potential clients that may be interested.

Next to land on the bench and bar is The American Lawyer which stresses that it will write not about the law but about lawyers. As befits a division of Esquire Magazine, this legal weekly is deep into personal portraits of big name lawyer squabbles, go-go new law firms, who’s manuevering to handle what occupational disaster, and the like. It’s gossipy, investigative, and hopes to be purchased by lawyers unable to resist its irreverent style.

Last to appear–in September–will be The National Law Journal which calls itself “the first national newspaper about the law.” The National Law Journal has signed up 40 leading lawyers as commentators and analysts. In a recent ad, one of the topics promised coverage is “What are the 50 hottest law firms and why?”

Like a magnifying glass under the sun, these competitive newspapers will change what they cover. They will be groping fiercely for insider materials, and it won’t be long before they themselves will be utilized by firms or lawyers who want to leak information for their private pursuits or pettiness.

Law firms never have had a regular outlet to leak their gossip or jealousies. Worse still, until very recently lawyers were prohibited by their cannons of ethics from speaking publicly about their practice.

When in 1969 we began the study of Covington and Burling–the largest Washington law firm–our researchers were told about the cannons by nearly every lawyer they tried to interview. One young attorney felt he could not answer a question about his alma mater, Yale Law School, on the ground that it would be indulging in impermissible self-touting. Imagine!

How the times have changed. After the Supreme Court struck down the bar association’s canons against advertising last year, more than lawyer ads started to issue forth. More lawyers are discovering their public tongues and are babbling like a brook transporting heavy spring waters.

Joe Goulden, author of the 1972 bestseller, “The Super Lawyers,” has just finished a new book called “The Million Dollar Lawyers.” Goulden got them to talk with near abandon about their victories, their dislikes and their fellow attorneys.

Now come three weeklies whose success grows in proportion to their reduction of law firm secrecy. The effects are likely to be provoking.

One can foresee more open conflicts between and within these firms, and more interest by law enforcement agencies such as the SEC whose employees also will read the same newspapers. More companies will switch firms following articles evaluating the poor or good quality of client representation.

Shareholder actions against companies which pay excessive law firm charges are likely to be filed in court. Lawyers fees imposed on business are of deep interest to the editors ofthese newspapers, and those raw nerves will be rubbed frequently in their pages. The general media will spread such tidbits further.

All together these new pressures will present the giant firms in a more commercial, grasping image that will erode their most precious assets–their status. It is status which facilitates their ability to decree their fees; status which attracts the top law school graduates; status which induces reporters to append law firm names with the word “prestigious” as if it were part of the plaque on the door.

As the mystique fades away, these firms will slide from their imagined Olympian heights of sublime non-responsibility and be compelled to grapple in the mud for the gritty business of their conglomerate clients. And mud is known to leave better tracks.

Oh what these three new legal newspapers will have wrought.

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