December 7, 2022
“It Was Twenty Years Ago Today”: Perspectives on the Passing of a Great Law Firm
On December 7, 2002, the partners at Hill & Barlow – a venerable, 107-year-old Boston law firm – voted to dissolve the firm. The decision was precipitated by the announcement that the firm’s real estate practice was leaving for greener pastures.
I practiced law and mediation at Hill & Barlow for 17 years, but I was not there on that fateful day because I had left six months earlier to set up my own small practice. But I still felt enormous affection for the firm, and so my jaw literally dropped when I saw the email announcing its dissolution.
Hill & Barlow was noteworthy for many things. Four Massachusetts governors – Endicott Peabody, Mike Dukakis, Bill Weld, and Deval Patrick – practiced there, as did former FBI Director Bob Mueller. The firm was known for its pro bono work, such as representing Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s and antiwar protestors in the 1970s. Several Hill & Barlow lawyers became judges, several served as town moderators or on government boards, and several held adjunct teaching positions.
In addition to its commitment to public interest endeavors, Hill & Barlow stood out in its forward-looking policies about part-time work, parental leave (3 months of paid leave for father or mother), generous vacation policies, and fully paid health insurance. There was even a sabbatical policy, and so, after being a partner for seven years, I used my six-month sabbatical to hike the Appalachian Trail with my son. (As far as I know, no other Boston firm supports sabbaticals.)
There was also another side of Hill & Barlow – the old-line, “white shoe” firm. I recall talking to my mother-in-law, who grew up in New England, about joining the firm and telling her why I was so excited to be going there. “It’s very progressive for a large downtown firm,” I said, describing the many types of pro bono cases the firm handles. “Really!?!” she said, “that’s so interesting. My family has always used Hill & Barlow because we consider it to be one of the most conservative, hide-bound firms in Boston, and that’s what we want!”
And to be sure, in its estate planning and trust administration work, Hill & Barlow earned its reputation for stodgy perspicacity. The visual image that comes to my mind is one of the firm’s senior trusts and estates lawyers, who eschewed the comforts of an ergonomic desk chair for an old-fashioned, wooden spindle-back chair bearing the emblem of his law school alma mater (yes, the one in Cambridge).
Hill & Barlow was also old fashioned in its emphasis on collegiality, mentorship, moderate billable-hour expectations, and viewing the practice of law as more of a profession than a business. The latter two points may be the key to understanding why the firm went under. At other large firms in Boston and around the U.S., profit-per-partner became the most vital statistic in measuring a firm’s viability; Hill & Barlow’s real estate lawyers contended that the firm’s demise was inevitable because its biggest rainmakers would surely get picked off by other firms that could afford to pay them more.
By the way, not everything about Hill & Barlow was wonderful. The firm’s diversity efforts could have been more robust. And, it was, like every other large law firm I’ve ever heard about, decidedly hierarchical in structure. (One of the least appealing features of the firm, when I arrived, was the practice of providing a catered lunch for the lawyers once a week, but not for the support staff.)
On balance, however, Hill & Barlow was an admirable firm – exemplary in the quality of work done there, in the firm’s commitment to ethical practice, and in its respect for the conscience of its lawyers when controversial cases came along. I recall several instances in which other associates and I declined to work on cases on principle (e.g., representing a cigarette manufacturer and representing an accused Nazi who was fighting extradition), and we were never penalized by the firm for doing so.
This last point seems particularly salient today. When I ask the law students that I teach what they will be doing after graduation, the majority tell me (somewhat apologetically) that they will be working for one of the BigLaw firms until they pay off their student loans. They talk about feeling ambivalent about this choice because of BigLaw’s corporate clientele. High on the list of clients that these law students do not want to represent these days are fossil fuel companies, because of climate change concerns.
Looking back from the vantage point of twenty years, I can see that it may have been impossible to save Hill & Barlow. It was locked into a long lease and many of its clients were leaving with the real estate lawyers. Even though some of Hill & Barlow’s lawyers were willing to downsize the firm, the financial realities of the situation stood in the way.
As to the future, it is likely that BigLaw will keep getting bigger, and compensation for BigLaw partners will continue its climb into the ionosphere. (At the top 20 firms, the average profit-per-partner is currently over $5 million/year.) And generating profits at that level means that the biggest firms will continue to expect distressingly long hours from all of their lawyers, billed at hourly rates that people of ordinary means cannot afford.
Yet I am left with hope that there will continue to be outposts of idealistic lawyers in small and medium-size firms who want to preserve what was best about Hill & Barlow and prioritize pro bono work and a balanced life over dizzying levels of compensation.
For some additional reflections on Hill & Barlow, see