Law firm

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A law firm is a business entity formed by one or more lawyers to engage in the practice of law.


[edit] Function

The primary service provided by a law firm is to advise clients (individuals or corporations) about their legal rights and responsibilities, and to represent their clients in civil or criminal cases, business transactions and other matters in which legal assistance is sought. Smaller firms tend to focus on particular specialties of the law (e.g. patent law, labor law, tax law, criminal defense, personal injury); larger firms may be composed of several specialized practice groups, allowing the firm to diversify their client base and market, and to offer a variety of services to their clients.

[edit] Organization

Law firms are organized in a variety of ways, depending on the jurisdiction in which the firm practices. Common arrangements include:

  • Sole proprietorship, in which the attorney is the law firm and is responsible for all profit, loss and liability;
  • General partnership, in which all of the attorneys in the firm equally share ownership and liability;
  • Professional corporations, which issue stock to the attorneys in a fashion similar to that of a business corporation;
  • Limited liability company, in which the attorney-owners are called "members" but are not directly liable to third party creditors of the law firm;
  • Professional association, which operates similarly to a professional corporation or a limited liability company;
  • Limited liability partnership (LLP), in which the attorney-owners are called "partners", but are not liable to third party creditors of the law firm, except in certain limited circumstances.

In many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, there is a rule that only lawyers may have an ownership interest in, or be managers of, a law firm. Thus, law firms cannot quickly raise capital through initial public offerings on the stock market, like most corporations. In the United States this rule is promulgated by the American Bar Association and adhered to in almost all U.S. jurisdictions.

The rule was created in order to prevent conflicts of interest. In the adversarial system of justice, a lawyer has a duty to be a zealous and loyal advocate on behalf of the client. Also, as an officer of the court, a lawyer has a duty to be honest and to not file frivolous cases. A lawyer working as a shareholder-employee of a publicly traded law firm would be strongly tempted to evaluate decisions in terms of their effect on the stock price and the shareholders, which would directly conflict with the lawyer's duties to the client and to the courts.

In the United Kingdom lawyers are divided between barristers, who plead in the higher courts and give expert opinions on points of law, and solicitors who act directly for clients. Even though barristers are traditionally seen as the senior branch of the legal profession, and the most distinguished British lawyers are generally barristers, most barristers are self-employed sole practitioners (although they share facilties in sets of rooms known as "chambers", usually at one of the four Inns of Court). All the main UK law firms are firms of solicitors.

[edit] Structure and Promotion

Larger firms are typically organized around partners, who are joint owners and business directors of the legal operation; associates, who are employees of the firm with the prospect of becoming partners; and a variety of staff employees, providing paralegal, clerical, and other support services. An associate may have to wait as long as 9 years before the decision is made as to whether the associate "makes partner". Many law firms have an "up-or-out policy": associates who do not make partner are required to resign, either to join another firm, go it alone as a solo practitioner, go to work in-house in a corporate legal department, or change professions (burnout rates are very high in law<ref>Michael H. Trotter, Profit and the Practice of Law: What's Happened to the Legal Profession (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 83.</ref>).

Making partner is very prestigious, especially at a large or midsize firm. Such firms take out advertisements in legal newspapers to announce who has made partner. Traditionally, partners shared directly in the profits of the firm, after paying salaried employees, the landlord, and the usual costs of furniture, office supplies, and books for the law library (or a database subscription). However, many large law firms have moved to a two-tiered partnership model, with equity and non-equity partners. Equity partners are considered to have ownership stakes in the firm, and share in the profits (and losses) of the firm. Non-equity partners are generally paid a fixed salary (albeit much higher than associates), and they are often granted certain limited voting rights with respect to firm operations. It is rare for a partner to be forced out by her fellow partners, although that can happen if the partner commits a crime or malpractice, experiences disruptive mental illness, or is not contributing to the firm's overall profitability. In contrast, most corporate executives are at much higher risk of being fired, even when the underlying cause is not directly their fault, such as a drop in the company's stock price.

In the United States and Canada, many large and midsize firms have attorneys with the job title of "counsel", "special counsel" or "of counsel." These attorneys are employees of the firm like associates, although some firms have an independent contractor relationship with their of counsel. But unlike associates, and more like partners, they generally have their own clients, manage their own cases, and supervise associates. These relationships are structured to allow more senior attorneys share in the resources and "brand name" of the firm without being a part of management or profit sharing decisions. The title is often seen among former associates who do not make partner, or who are laterally recruited to other firms, or who work as in-house counsel and then return to the big firm environment. At some firms (such as Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom), the title "of counsel" is given to retired partners who maintain ties to the firm. Sometimes an "Of Counsel" is a senior or experienced attorney, maybe a foreign legal consultant with experience in international law and practice, and his own clients. They are hired as independent contractors by large firms as a special arrangement, that may lead upon profitable results to partnership. In these situation an "Of Counsel" could be considered as a transitional status in the firm.

[edit] Size

Law firms range widely in size. The smallest law firms are solo practitioners (lawyers practicing alone), who form the vast majority of lawyers in most countries. In North America, there are also many small firms (2 to 50 lawyers) and midsize firms (50 to 200 lawyers).<ref>Trotter, 46.</ref>

Lawyers in small cities and towns may still have old-fashioned general practices, but most urban lawyers tend to be highly specialized due to the overwhelming complexity of the law today.<ref>Trotter, 50.</ref> Thus, some small firms in the cities specialize in practicing only one kind of law (like employment, intellectual property, or telecommunications) and are called "boutique" firms.

The largest law firms have more than 1,000 lawyers. These firms will likely have offices on several continents, bill up to $750 per hour or higher, and have a high ratio of support staff per attorney.<ref>Trotter, 56.</ref> They can, and in some cases do, litigate every issue, burying their opponents in a blizzard of paper in the process; the result has been a kind of legal "arms race" where every large corporation tries to retain the services of the biggest law firm they can afford.<ref>Trotter, 114.</ref> Because of the localized and regional nature of firms, the relative size of a firm varies. Thus in New York, several hundred attorneys would be required for a "large firm", whereas in Las Vegas, perhaps only 50 attorneys would be needed to be a "large firm".

The largest firms like to call themselves "full-service" firms because they have departments specializing in every type of legal work that pays well, which in the U.S. usually means M&A transactions, banking and defense. These firms rarely do plaintiffs' personal injury work. However the largest law firms are not very large compared to other major businesses (or even other professional services firms) due to the fact that, as law firms, they cannot raise capital from the public markets and, due to ethics rules, cannot represent conflicting parties.

The largest law firms in the world are based primarily in the United Kingdom and the United States. The American system of licensing attorneys on a state-by-state basis, the tradition of having a headquarters in a single U.S. state and a close focus on profits per partner (as opposed to sheer scale) has to date limited the size of most American law firms. Thus, whilst the most profitable law firms in the world remain in New York, four of the six largest firms in the world are based in London in the United Kingdom [1]. But the huge size of the United States results in a larger number of large firms overall — a 2003 survey found that the United States alone had 901 law firms with more than 50 lawyers, while there were only 58 such firms in Canada, 44 in Great Britain, 14 in France, and 9 in Germany.<ref>Lawrence M. Friedman and Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo, "Latin Legal Cultures in the Age of Globalization," in Legal Culture in the Age of Globalization: Latin America and Latin Europe, eds. Lawrence M. Friedman and Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo, 1-19 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 92.</ref> There is an increasing tendancy for globalisation of law firms.

In 2004, the largest law firm in the world was the British firm Clifford Chance, which had revenue of US$1.675 billion. This can be compared with $312 billion for Wal-Mart. On the other hand, Clifford Chance employs about 6,500 worldwide (3200+ of whom are fee-earning lawyers), versus Walmart's 1,600,000 employees.

[edit] Location

Most law firms are located in office buildings of various sizes, ranging from modest one-story buildings to some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world (though only in 2004, Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP was the first firm to put its name on a skyscraper). Some solo practitioners practice out of their homes or in offices built as special additions to their homes.

Because their "work product" is often intangible, or at least conceptually difficult for clients to grasp, some firms are notorious for using jaw-dropping interior design (huge amount of floor space and fantastic views) as a crude "shock and awe" tactic to impress prospective clients and terrify opposing counsel. Other firms will find more modest office space, depending on the nature of the practice.

In early 2005, it was widely publicized that one personal injury plaintiffs' firm in the state of New York has been experimenting with bus-sized "mobile law offices." The firm insists that it does not chase ambulances. It claims that a law office on wheels is more convenient for personal injury plaintiffs, who are often recovering from severe injuries and thus find it difficult to travel far from their homes for an intake interview. It is not yet clear whether this experiment will grow into a trend.

[edit] In fiction

A number of television shows such as L.A. Law, The Practice, and Boston Legal have revolved around relationships occurring in fictional law firms, highlighting both public fascination with and misperception of the characteristic lives of lawyers in high-powered settings.

[edit] References


[edit] See also

[edit] External links

es:Firma de Abogados

Law firm

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