Big Law Lessons from ‘Suits’ and ‘The Good Wife’

While overall hiring and demand for legal work may be down, the number of hit television shows about lawyers is certainly up. Two recent launches featuring top-tier lawyers as leads have captivated viewers—The Good Wife (CBS, 2009-Present), and Suits (USA, 2011-Present). Of course, both shows are fictional representations of what the world of big law is like. Yet a closer look at some of the recent developments on both, namely a partner leaving her firm to start her own shop, and another firm caught up in a merger gone bad still hold applicable lessons for the industry based on the recent trends we are seeing.

Good Wife

CBS’s The Good Wife follows the story of Alicia Florrick (Julianna Marguiles), a lawyer who returns to the courtroom after more than 10 years as a stay-at-home mom. Florrick’s return also follows the arrest of her husband Peter (a political figure and former attorney), who was jailed after a sex and corruption scandal. Florrick seeks refuge in her children and work, quickly becoming an equity partner at the mid-sized firm of Lockhart & Gardner. Recently in the show, Florrick decides to leave Lockhart and start her own shop, taking with her a large client and a number of the firm’s associates. The move leaves Florrick’s friend and former colleague Will Gardner (Josh Charles), a named partner at Lockhart, feeling deeply betrayed and in the difficult position of defining Lockhart’s future without Florrick and the client that she took with her.

USA’s Suits, on the other hand, follows the story of junior associate Mike Ross (Patrick Adams) and senior partner Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) at the firm of Pearson Specter in New York. Pearson is known as one of the top firms in the world, and they have a reputation for strictly hiring Harvard law grads. However, they make an exception when Specter (widely known as the best lawyer in New York) decides to hire Ross as his associate. Ross has a unique background—he is not a lawyer, but a sharp twenty-something with a photographic memory. He was on his way to enrolling at Harvard Law School before getting caught up in a marijuana deal gone wrong. Nonetheless, Ross is able to convince Specter to bring him on by proving he will be the best lawyer he has ever seen. The show tracks Ross’s and Specter’s relationship, the cases they try, and their efforts to keep Ross’s secret from getting out.

What can we learn about the world of big law from these two shows?

Florrick’s departure is one that has become the natural response for many law firm managers given the lingering recession and stagnant demand for legal work. Soon after Florrick leaves, Gardner’s first moves are to target high-dollar, high-profile laterals, to inject momentum and increase profitability. He also chooses to open a New York office, and unveils a new logo/moniker for the firm: “LG”. His stated objective is to “destroy the competition”. Whether the strategy works for Gardner and the firm remains to be seen, but it is clear that he is set on growth for growth’s sake, and as Steven Harper of The American Lawyer said in a recent article, the strategic plans of many big law firms identify “no institutional mission beyond getting bigger.”

Similarly, the main characters in Suits are dealing with struggles over firm stability and cash flow in the face of looming financial woes. Pearson Specter managing partner Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres) sees a merger as the best and only option, agreeing to a merger with London-based Darby International. This was against the wishes of her second-in-command, Specter. The merger eventually goes through but is later dissolved after Specter and Ross are able to help right the firm financially. In the process they also find out that Darby is not what he seems, and they are able to convince Pearson that the firm is better off as they were before—without Darby, his money, or a London office.

SuitsBoth shows portray firms considering very real dilemmas. One thing that is clear—there is no magic formula or single best course of action. And often we will not know for some time if the decisions we make will pay off.

But here is what we do know. For one thing, record numbers of firms are merging—in fact, 78 mergers had been announced as of November 2013, eclipsing the previous record of 70 in 2008. However, this begs the question: is bigger necessarily better in today’s legal climate? For more on that, check out this Wall Street Journal article written by Jennifer Smith on November 10. We also know others are aggressively targeting key “rainmaker” partners and up-and-coming lateral associates. For some, the strategy appears to be working. For others, there is a growing sense that a reliance on lateral hiring could be destabilizing firms. A recent American Lawyer article by William Henderson and Christopher Zorn speaks to that perspective.

One thing is certain—there will always a place for mergers and for bringing on experienced lateral talent. But along with such decisions come much needed conversations about firm culture, compatibility, control, and the long-term effects that such decisions can have. While both the Good Wife and Suits growth strategies provide short term stability, resources, and perhaps positive press, the real questions law firm managers should be asking are whether their decisions stem from the correct motives, and what the longer-term implications may be for them and their firms.

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