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Trade Publications Turn Spotlight on Business Side of Law

September 27, 1987|WILLIAM OVEREND

The leaders of Los Angeles law firms hit hardest by the economic transformation of the corporate legal world blame some of their problems on the press--particularly legal trade publications that report on the business side of the law.

The two most influential publications are The American Lawyer, which publishes an annual report on every dollar earned by major law firms, and The National Law Journal, which also details the internal upheavals of firms throughout the country.

Until the last decade, when both publications started, such detailed accounting of internal law firm profits and problems was unprecedented. Today it has spread beyond the trade publications to major newspapers from New York to Los Angeles.

One of the strongest critics of press coverage of the law is Sherwin Memel, one of the founders of an L.A. firm that started in 1975 and grew spectacularly to 145 lawyers before a bitter internal feud that preceded its folding early this year.

'Unbelievable Onslaught . . .'

"The first publicity was in The American Lawyer or The National Law Journal," Memel said. "When the news of our first difficulty made the press, we had the most unbelievable onslaught from headhunters and other firms.

"I truly believe the articles made it impossible to solve the problems," Memel added. "Had we been left alone, we would have found a way. But law firm economics have now become a subject of articles in virtually every aspect of the media. It's not just the trade press. You now include the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.

"I think it's bad news," Memel added. "Press interest in the business side of the law is generally bad for law firms, and every sign is it's going to get worse in the coming years. The American Lawyer is the most influential element in that."

Many other lawyers agree with Memel that legal reporting has created problems for law firms, exposing their weaknesses and creating a "shopping list" for law students and rival firms by regularly listing which firms are paying more money to their senior partners and younger associates.

Although some lawyers disagree, dismissing legal publications as the "gossip press" and minimizing their influence, publishers of the nation's largest legal journals concede that they have had an impact on the legal profession just as the press has an impact on other areas of business and society in general.

Lawyers Use Annual Lists

Steven Brill, 36, a Yale Law School graduate who started The American Lawyer in 1978, says he has been told by lawyers that they use his annual lists of the nation's richest law firms in deciding where they should work. He also admits that such reporting can contribute to partner raiding.

"There really wasn't that much information before," Brill said. "A law firm's problem can be exacerbated by our publishing the numbers. Until that happened, a guy making $250,000 a year thought he was rich. Then he sees a guy on an opposite deal making twice as much. He gets upset."

Both Brill and James Finkelstein, publisher of the National Law Journal, defend their overall reporting as generally helpful to lawyers rather than harmful. They also stress that their publications devote more space to coverage of legal issues and lawyer personality profiles than to strictly business news.

"There's an enormous impact that we and others have had on the legal profession," Finkelstein said. "But mostly we have helped lawyers be better lawyers. We reported on the breakup at Memel and we were first in reporting about breakups. But those firms would be breaking up anyway.

"We just report the news," Finkelstein said.

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