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A pretty common trope in different kinds of media is the idea that large corporations or rich people can screw people like they want and get away with it, because they have oh so many lawyers at their disposal. Mr. Burns from the simpsons comes to my mind immediately.

Is there any truth behind this assumption? Can a large lawyer team render you invulnerable to certain lawsuits? I have no experience with any real applications of jurisprudence, so I find it really strange.

Some points I can think of:

  • When the lawsuit is so large and complicated that you need the manpower to sift through all its aspects. Still, if you poisoned an ecosystem your guilt should be provable and you would be condemned no matter the number of lawyers.

  • Intimidating your opponent with the number of your lawyers to make them concede to a extrajudicial solution.

  • It's just a code for bribing the judges.

But none of those would explain this phenomenon properly. Is it even a real thing?

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There are times when having a large law firm work on a case can be an advantage.

It is rare for the number of lawyers working on a particular case to be more than three or four plus a few paralegals, even in a case where there are virtually unlimited resources at a party's disposal.

In those cases, the primary benefit of having a large law firm at your disposal is that by paying top dollar for those attorneys, you may (but certainly don't always) get particularly competent attorneys at firms that have good systems in place.

If you are willing to spend the money you can also have the attorney and paralegal team work exhaustively to leave no stone unturned in terms of legal research, style and proofreading, "wild goose chase" factual and legal research of matters like trial court arguments from other cases that the opposing counsel has participated in, and trial presentations with lavish presentation quality.

For example, in one case where my firm was litigating against a large law firm in state supreme court arguments, the firm had seven law firm partners who had served as clerks in that court earlier in their careers participate in mock oral arguments to help the appellate lawyer who would be presented the case in oral arguments to the Colorado Supreme Court prepare (with four members of your core team and seven mock justices plus some paralegals participating this was a $5000+ per hour activity).

A typical run of the mill appellate brief prepared competently might take 100 hours, while a large firm might devote 800 hours to the same task (both of these are hypothetical round numbers suggested just to get the point across).

This incredibly intense working up of cases, moreover, often involves attorneys who aren't really starting from scratch as they has handled many similar cases before in their careers, while their smaller firm competition may have only encountered the issues presented for the first time.

You are also paying for connections and experience. For example, a large law firm may have an easier time retaining the most decorated expert witnesses to argue on their behalf. These attorneys may also have handled numerous cases in front of the judge or judges who will be deciding the case (and if they haven't someone else in the large firm probably has) and thus can better predict what approach will be received best by that particular judge.

The exception to the rule that the maximal economies of scale are reached with a quite small group of lawyers is that in addition to this core group of lawyers, some cases, such as class action lawsuits, or cases involving complex transactions (e.g. construction project disputes in a large project with hundreds of contractors) may require an immense amount of factual discovery in the trial court in the form of depositions of dozens or hundreds of people with relevant knowledge, and/or review of vast volumes of documents (e.g. I've had several cases with whole rooms stacked floor to ceiling with relevant documents in banker's boxes).

In cases like those, you need an army of senior paralegals and junior attorneys to interview witnesses, take depositions and review and summarize documents to get to the bottom of the factual matters needed to prove a case.

The down side of this approach, however, is that it is extremely expensive relative to the alternatives per task, and frequently impossible to recover your costs and attorney fees from the other party, perhaps because they aren't permitted to be awarded, perhaps because a judge would find some or all of your fees and costs to be unreasonable, or perhaps because the other side simply can't afford to pay them.

So, using a firm like this really only makes sense if the stakes involved are very high, or if there are long term strategic reasons to litigate. Spending $1,000,000 on attorneys' fees and costs is a very expensive way to litigate a $100,000 one off dispute. But spending $1,000,000 on attorneys' fees and costs is perfectly sensible if there is $100,000,000 in controversy in the case at hand, or if a favorable outcome will influence the outcome of a large number of future disputed of the same type.

The other dirty little secret is that lots of the work done by large law firms for which their clients pay an immense amount of money isn't done very well. One inherent down side of being large is that a large law firm is bureaucratic and prone to the kinds of mistakes that all large organizations have, for example, in diffusing responsibility for mistakes that can allow mistakes to fall through the cracks. Also, while the typical large law firm lawyer is typically more knowledgable than the typical small firm lawyer about the field at issue, this doesn't always happen. Sometimes junior attorneys get assigned too much responsibility on cases in areas where they have blind spots in their knowledge, and sometimes a large firm attorney ends up working a case due to personal connections with the client rather than because that attorney is the most qualified person in the firm to handle it.

Also, while some very brilliant lawyers do indeed work at large law firms, technical competence isn' the only consideration in hiring. Successful large firm lawyers need to be team players, need to conform and function well in a large bureaucracy, and need to have the social capital to be comfortable on a day to day basis with the firm's other lawyers and their affluent and big business clients. Many large firm lawyers have those soft skills while having only competent rather than excellent legal acumen.

Further, since most large law firm lawyers go straight from law school to a big firm (sometimes with a detour clerking for a judge for a couple of years), and large law firms handle mostly very big cases that are usually settled by lead attorneys before going to trial, most large law firm attorneys aren't particularly experienced at trial work. Some large law firms compensate for that by laterally hiring former prosecutors, former criminal defense lawyers and former high volume personal injury litigators to do that work, but often, large law firms have few lawyers in the courtroom with much trial experience relative to how many years they have practiced law. They may be very well prepared, but often there is no substitute for hands on trial experience.

Still large law firms tend to fight extremely hard in trial, but tend to be pushovers in settlement discussions. This is driven by the reality that the client will incur huge amounts of attorneys fees and costs to go the distance, and by the fact that professionally, the worst thing that a large firm lawyer can do it to have an unexpected and unpredictable bad outcome at trial. So, large firm attorneys seek to give their clients low expectations about what is possible in litigation in order to make it possible to make cases with significant uncertainty go away with settlements larger than would really have been necessary to settle the case with a more total client litigation and settlement cost sensitive law firm.

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    Try being an adjudicator with a room full of boxes and a statutory limit of 10 business days to make a decision! – Dale M Aug 28 at 3:41
  • @DaleM The whole point of an adversary based system is for the parties to make the job easier for you by pointing out and explaining the important bits. – ohwilleke Aug 28 at 16:16
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    Well, yes and those who give you reams of paper usually do so pretty well. It’s actually the ones at the other end of the scale who are unrepresented that give the most trouble - by doing things like not demonstrating they actually have a construction contract, or that they did any work, or what that work was, etc. – Dale M Aug 28 at 21:53
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It's not about bodies; it's about specialization and the division of labor

Some lawyers are good at details, some at the big picture. Some are good at breaking complex problems into smaller, more manageable ones, some at keeping track of the work-flow, while others shine when they are given specific tasks and schedules. Some are good at research, some at writing, some at presenting arguments in court. And so on.

When amici file briefs, they usually specialize, focusing on one aspect of the case. In appellate cases, the amici may even write a brief that aims to convince a particular judge or justice to vote their way.

For example, in Lawrence v. Texas, the Texas sodomy case, the appellants urged the Court to strike down the Texas sodomy statute for violating due process. To do so, the Court had to overturn an earlier decision, Bowers v. Hardwick. One of the amici (written by Pam Karlin, IIRC) focused on equal protection, an issue that had not been raised in Bowers. They did this to give Justice O'Connor, who had joined the majority in Bowers, a way to vote with the majority in Lawrence without disavowing her earlier vote. The strategy worked, and Justice O'Connor filed a concurrence that did not join the majority in overturning Bowers.

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