Recently, I ran into lawyer friend I had not seen in a while. We never practiced at the same firm, but we used to interact frequently.
Of course, both of us ended up trading reminiscences. Typically, such conversations are fun – and this one was too, mostly.
My friend spoke glowingly of the firm I was at in the late 80’s, Browder Russell. He mentioned how he had envied me for having been there. That "legendary firm" was a difficult place at which to get a job, but it was where he had wanted to work, a firm where the lawyers “worked hard and played hard.”
When I told him that my memories were not particularly fond ones, he seemed taken aback.
Here is the story: Browder Russell was truly the cool firm in Richmond when I was in law school. About 60 lawyers, it had the heft, pay and perks of bigger firms but without the stodginess. Even the office was awe inspiring. The lawyers were smart and aggressive – and, yes, they were well known for having fun, sometimes too much fun.
As a law student, I couldn’t get an interview. I went to work at PennStuart in Southwest Virginia. When I decided to move back to Richmond, I got a position at a big premier firm, McGuireWoods LLP, but Browder Russell had no interest in me.
Big law was not for me. When I left McGuireWoods, Browder Russell finally hired me for its medical malpractice section.
I thought I had landed where I was supposed to be.
Unfortunately, I had boarded a sinking ship. Browder Russell was in trouble. I got there the summer of 1988. It folded at the end of 1990.
At first, it was mostly okay, although the tensions and dysfunction were readily apparent, even for a young lawyer. The last year or so was miserable. At one point I was fired – and then un-fired two weeks later. One crisis followed another.
Indeed, Browder Russell had some excellent lawyers who I respected then – and I still respect now. However, when a law firm (or any business for that matter) is having problems, many otherwise decent people just don't behave well. In fact, they can behave very badly.
Many clung to the firm’s perceived status and image until the end – and its cool culture. It had all become an unfunny joke, however.
My experience taught me a valuable lesson: Financial stability and viability are the foundation of everything else. Lurching from one crisis to another makes firm culture meaningless. The bonds among people simply won't hold. A business constantly struggling to survive is not pretty or fun.
Status doesn’t make payroll. Image can’t pay the rent.
People facing uncertainty get scared. Scared people attack others. Fingers are pointed. Blame is assigned.
Financial troubles are a breeding ground for ugliness.
So, no. I don't view Browder Russell as some sort of legal Paradise Lost.
When I explained all this to my friend, he understood. Still, I think he was sad - maybe even a little shocked - to realize that the legend was tarnished.