There’s a new layer at the bottom of the billable hours pyramid. The top is still occupied by partners, followed by non-partner lawyers, and then by the fairly recent paralegal and other quasi-clerical layers. But, in the last few years, the pyramid has been jacked up by an even newer, more profitable bottom layer at many firms: The contract lawyer.
The old portrayal of lawyers, like you could see on Perry Mason, for example, consisted of a solo practitioner, or maybe a few lawyers (almost always male), supported by secretaries (almost always female) and maybe other staff, like Paul Drake, Perry’s private investigator.
The reality wasn’t far off the TV version. There were some law firms with a dozen or so lawyers, but, as I recall, the first law firm with over 100 lawyers wasn’t until the 1960s, maybe later.
In those days, law school wasn’t all that competitive — you usually picked the closest school — except for maybe a little competition to enter the Ivy League schools. Junior lawyers could often skip law school and study law under a practicing lawyer, then take the bar exam to get a license.
One reason that law firms were smaller in the good old days was because the law was also “smaller.” Most cases were simpler and moved faster, with shorter pre-trial and trial, if any, and far less paper, fewer depositions, fewer and shorter motions, and so on. Lawyers were often paid flat fees set by the lawyer in advance or after the matter, based on rough estimates of value or mandatory bar fee schedules to prevent competition (now illegal). Litigation, fueled by billable hours, discovery, and massive piles of paper got wound up in the late 1970s and roared into the 1980s, perhaps beginning to subside a little lately. The invention of the “xerox” machine had as much to do with this as real, legal necessity. The velocity of written court opinions filling library shelves — back when the law was on paper — was much slower, making legal research easier and cheaper, too.