What a Legal Recession Looks Like

Today’s big-firm associates and junior partners weren’t even in law school during the last deep, sustained legal recession.

You have to go back to the early 1990s to find the last time major law firms suffered through year after year of negative growth. That recession hit hardest in Manhattan, where the health of big firms is tied most closely to the vicissitudes of Wall Street.

It’s too soon to know how long the current downturn will last—either for the economy as a whole or for major law firms in particular. But looking back to the last recession reminds us of the sequence every downturn follows: starting with denial that it’s happening, then the struggle over what needs to be done to survive it and, finally, surprise—it’s over.

I spent the first half of the 1990s reporting about the recession for the New York Law Journal, watching firms make—or, in some cases, not make—that journey. Join me on a scary trip down memory lane and, quite possibly, into our future.

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