How BigLaw partners are like baseball stars

by Vault Law Editors | October 15, 2010

  • My Vault

Malcolm Gladwell's recent New Yorker piece "Talent Grab" chronicles the remarkable inflation of the salaries paid to high level professionals (“talent”) over the last few decades. Baseball is his principal lens to examine this phenomenon. Once upon a time, the owners made the lion’s share of the money and the players were locked into onerous lowball lifetime contracts. This all changed after trade union veteran Marvin Miller was installed as head of the Players Association. Miller convinced the players that the owners’ conduct was not benign paternalism but rather rank exploitation. Free agency, revenue sharing, and fat paydays followed.

The transformation is framed as a victory of “Talent” over “Capital” (or ownership) and applied similarly to Wall Street bankers, Fortune 500 execs, and corporate lawyers. In the postwar years and into the 1970s, all of these groups made a relative fraction of what they do today.   In 1956, Roswell Magill, a Cravath partner, “spoke for a generation of professionals” when he lamented that law firms

[C]an no longer honestly assure promising young men that if they become partners they can save money in substantial amounts, build country homes and gardens for themselves like their fathers and grandfathers did, and plan extensive European vacations.

Behold the BigLaw version of “Mad Men” era assumptions about gender and class! And of course we are all greatly relieved that the current Cravath partnership is prospering and may even be able to "plan extensive European vacations." Although they would likely cancel them at the last minute.

(Also, is Gladwell making a category error? Arguably, the partnership is “Capital” and “Talent” simultaneously.)

posted by brian

Filed Under: Law

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