Category Archives: Business reporting

A different Ferguson effect

We journalists like to talk about the distinction between a topic and a story. The topic of my latest story, in this Sunday’s New York Times business section, is the role employers can play in hiring more former prisoners for good jobs after their release. I developed that topic from chatter I heard in the criminal-justice policy world and from asking a question, after reading umpteen stories about the desperate need to boost employment numbers as a prisoner-reentry strategy. The question: What’s in it for employers?

Once I knew that was the topic I wanted to write about, I needed to find an example of a place where the problem is being tackled in a creative, market-driven way. What drew me to St. Louis was the merits of the program I focus on. It is, all my sources agreed, the most ambitious and effective of its kind.

But its location makes for an irony. It’s not one that I explored in the story, but that’s what blogs are for. That this program blossomed in the shadow of Ferguson, Missouri, speaks to a more complicated narrative about that region’s approach to crime than the one we’ve heard again and again after the death of Michael Brown.

I’m not saying the Brown protests lack authenticity. Whatever the interpretation of the facts surrounding Brown’s death, it’s clear that the systems of justice in Ferguson and St. Louis County were exposed as severely unfair and racist in multiple state and federal probes.

And I’m not saying that the program I wrote about is a response to the Ferguson controversy. In fact, it started in 2002, long before the protests in the St. Louis area.

But it’s an example of how the common outside view of a place can obscure contradictions. Though in the story I focus on the business rationale for this program, what’s just as interesting to me is that the people running it are motivated to change lives for the better. Their primary job is to enforce conditions of supervision once someone gets out of prison. But, to do that job, they choose to focus on helping those people adjust and creating conditions that make it more likely for them to succeed.

The upshot of the story is how difficult and detailed such attempts can be. But the underlying message is just as important: Someone in a position of power is trying, on a fairly grand scale.

Did I say “the end”? I meant end-ish

Noam Scheiber and The New Republic have answered critics of his recent cover story, including me (I attract his sharpest barb for posing a supposedly “cartoonish” version of one part of his argument). In the response to the responses, he marshals some facts, figures, and arguments that he uses to attack the notion that this down cycle is more than just that.

In my Slate essay, I happily concede that Big Law is going through a very rough patch and is no place to send bright-eyed youngsters for a career. The point of my rebuttal was that he and the magazine hyped a reasonable business story beyond all reason, by labeling it a story about “The End of Big Law” and by arguing, in the symbolically critical nut graf, that the imminent shakeout will lay waste to the majority of today’s top firms. Now Scheiber says a) he didn’t mean “the end” literally, only that they’ll change, and b) we shouldn’t take all that seriously the predictions but instead focus on the analysis of current conditions. Oh.

He also objects to my criticism of his telling of Big Law history. Scheiber protests that he did not claim Big Law was a cushy mid-20th century club until it found itself on the verge of collapse, suddenly and recently. Rather, he’s talking about perceptions — that the myth persisted well into the firms’ descent into crass commercialism. I guess I missed the subtlety of his point, amid all the paragraphs that paint the cushy portrait of days long gone. But I take his newly clarified point, and agree with it, as I have wasted a good deal of my own time trying to tell would-be law students that document production in windowless rooms for 70 hours a week isn’t quite the glamorous life they envision of highbrow debates about constitutional law.

Still, I don’t think Scheiber quite gets why his broader message sounded silly to those who’ve paid attention to this business for a much longer time than just one magazine feature’s research cycle. Why I still conclude that Scheiber took a juicy insider story of backbiting and greed at one firm and mined it for lessons that are either decades old or painfully obvious came in an “ask me anything” Q&A on Reddit last week. Listen in:

the degree of sophistication on the part of corporate clients – in vetting their legal bills – is highly problematic for big firms and something there’s no turning back from. many now hire consultants to pore over their legal bills for them. see this WSJ piece: my sense is that we’ll see increasing atomization in the legal profession. as i mentioned earlier, the economic rationale for the big firm was essentially one-stop shopping. but with clients more sophisticated about doing their own shopping for legal services, they’re feeling increasingly comfortable going out and hiring specialists on an ad hoc basis, when they need them. then using a more commoditized approach when they don’t.

In purely economic terms, this makes perfect sense and sounds compelling. Of course corporations will behave rationally! But here’s the thing: Big Law and its big corporate clients have been arguing these very points since the late 1980s. Evangelists have been predicting the end of the Big Law model on this very basis for so long that their Chicken Little act has worn very thin. Eventually, like the old one about a broken clock being right twice a day, they may see the market behave the way they insist it will. Until then, we’ll read stories like Scheiber’s every few years.

I saw what you did there

Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 7.58.30 PMIf, after a nine-year absence from writing about the business of law, I can recognize a story is old news, then it must be old news. That realization, and an offhand comment I made on Dahlia Lithwick’s Facebook page, led to this latest piece of mine on Slate. This week I watched as The New Republic story that I critique gathered an impressive pile of Twitter endorsements. That’s fine. As I point out in my piece, the story isn’t without merit. But I felt compelled to call BS on the approach the writer took. It’s what I would have done to it as an editor, so I figured it was fair game for a public critique.