Advocates for Starving Advocates



DLA Piper, generally considered the world’s largest law firm, is apparently growing. On Monday, Piper announced plans to launch a new wing aimed at attracting middle-class clients with more-competitive fees, and said it will sign up more than 400 recent law-school graduates. PufferLogo

With large law firms still struggling to find stability in an era of economic uncertainty, a Piper spokesman said this new wing, branded as “Puffer Legal” is designed to reach a growing, untapped market of potential clients. A pilot version of the new brand will launch this fall in 10 American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston, with an aim to bring affordable services to clients who can’t pay hundreds of dollars an hour for a lawyer, but also make too much money to qualify for legal aid and pro-bono services.

“Based on our research, the legal needs of the middle-class client are going unmet,”  Piper spokeswoman Michaela Figurrito said in a press release. “Courts in many states report a growing trend of pro se litigants appearing in civil matters. That’s a clear sign to us that the American justice system is struggling to deliver equal justice under the rule of law, and that a key stone in the search for revenue has been left unturned for too long.”

According to Piper’s press materials, the launch of Puffer Legal will mark an “exploratory mission” aimed at finding a new frontier in the legal market.” Piper believes that a firm charging between $50-150 per hour will be able to meet the needs the middle-class clients, and could mark a new dynamic in the legal business model, “akin to the entry of budget airlines like Southwest and JetBlue into the air travel market.”

Of course with lower fees will come significant cost reduction. The 400-plus new associates will likely start with a base salary of $50,000 per year in addition to a portion of any hours they bill. Likewise, the attorneys will operate in budget office space with fewer amenities and no expense accounts. What Puffer is missing in bells and whistles, it will apparently make up for with top-notch training. Puffer’s new junior attorneys will work under the guidance of experienced Piper lawyers to hone skills and ensure the quality of their product.

“In addition to this Justice Gap problem, we’ve seen a troubling trend of unhired JD recipients flooding the market, because the value of junior associates has significantly diminished in recent years, ” Figurrito said. “The fortuitous side effect of this revenue-seeking endeavor is that it will allow us to hire, train and develop new lawyers who might otherwise have lost out on such an apprenticeship at a crucial juncture of their young careers while restoring that lost value.”

Piper, the recent recipient of some well-deserved bad press, should be commended here for a progressive, ambitious venture. This would appear to be a market-based solution addressing the Justice Gap and the Hiring Gap in the same shot. It’s good to know that someone at Piper is figuring out how to pad the company’s annual $2.25 billion in revenue without padding client’s bills (you know, allegedly). If successful, this endeavor would send a ripple effect through the industry, buoying law schools struggling to fill seats and even rendering this blog moot by greatly reducing the volume of unfed attorneys.

Piper’s global co-chairman Tony Angel hailed his firm’s move partly as a sound business decision and partly as something more. Angel, speaking from a UN camp in Mberra, Mauritania, where he is volunteering both his time and money to assit Taureg refugees displaced by the Malian civil war, said his firm is paying something back to its profession.

“As human beings and as attorneys, we have both a moral and professional responsibility to protect the integrity of the American justice system,” Angel said via satellite phone while administering standard tuberculosis tests to a group of pre-school aged Taureg children. “We can’t stand around profiteering while so many average men and women go without access to legal guidance in civil disputes. This solution is kind of a no-brainer. We felt not doing something like this would be unconscionable. Besides if you can’t make money charging $50-150 hour for legal services, then maybe you shouldn’t be in the business of making money.”

Piper’s other global co-chair, Lee I. Miller, could not be reached for comment as he is in Afghanistan overseeing a project  to create schools for Afghani girls who have demonstrated interest in math and science.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Brown is a founding partner of Boston MicroLaw, LLP, a firm of Boston Business Lawyers, and an occasional purveyor of mischief. His favorite first amendment case is Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. He’s sad that Puffer Legal will only exist on the calends of April, but if Piper wants to get something going, he’ll be among the first to write about it. Also, he did some math and hiring 400 lawyers at $50,000 per year would cost Piper less than 1 percent of its annual revenue. And, no, the good parts of this story are not true.