The latest National Law Journal (NLJ) 250 report is out, the list of the nations top 250 firms. The results, while not surprising, serve as a good reminder that BigLaw’s heady days may well be past. 

The NLJ 250 (National Law Journal, 25 April 2011) reports that “Big Law continued to shed lawyers at a brisk clip in 2010.” In 2009 and 2010, the lawyer headcount at the top 250 firms shrank by almost 10,000 (roughly 3,000 in 2010).

The NLJ 250: Editor’s Note offers a glass half-full view, noting that “Grim as the numbers be… the number of lawyers working at the 250 largest firms in America is still higher than it was in 2006… And though the decreases are steep by big firm standards, the cuts still represent less than 10% of the attorney workforce among NLJ 250 firms. It’s not exactly happy news for the lawyers who’ve departed Big Law, but it’s worth remembering that firms reached record sizes in the two years prior to the recession.”

I think “glass half-full” reflects BigLaw management wishful thinking. Couple these data with the combination of price pressure and challenging realization rates and the glass may be worse than half-empty. It may also be cracked and moldy. That is, we have to decide whether we now have a better answer to the questions of the sustainability of BigLaw business model. In my view, the headcount reduction is merely a leading indicator of fundamental business model changes to come.

On a side note, The NLJ 250 links to “An interactive map of 21 U.S. cities with the highest number of lawyers.” Infographic: Big Law USA has a map of the US with dots for about 20 cities. The article says “Click on the map for attorney totals by city” but the action is simply to mouse-over, not click. Moreover, it’s sobering that this counts as “interactive” in the legal market. I fear that confusion between two common technical terms and the limited view of “interactive” says a lot about lawyers and technology.