The Elastic Tournament: The Second Transformation of the Big Law Firm

In 1991, Galanter and Palay published Tournament of Lawyers: The Transformation of the Big Law Firm, which documented the regular and relentless growth of large U.S. law firms. The book advanced several structural and historical factors to explain these patterns, centering on the adoption of the promotion-to-partnership tournament. Systemic changes in the marketplace for corporate legal services in the intervening years suggest the need for an updated account of the modem large law firm. 

Using Tournament of Lawyers as a starting point, we propose to fill this void in the literature. Marching through a wide array of empirical evidence covering the last twenty to thirty years, our findings corroborate some of the core theoretical insights of Tournament of Lawyers. For example, the continuous upward growth of the partnership based on the tournament is clearly evidenced by a "smooth" upward trajectory in the partnership ranks while associate hiring hews more closely to the underlying business cycle. On the other hand, the widening ranks of nonequity partnership and permanent "off track" attorneys suggest the emergence of a more complex and elongated tournament structure that applies to both partners and associates. Further, the sheer size and geographic dispersion of present-day large law firms makes it more difficult to create and sustain firm-wide cultural norms, such as collegiality, cooperation, and risk sharing, that may have moderated intrafirm competition under the original "classic" tournament.

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StrategyBill Henderson