As Rolling Stone just helpfully reminded us, even the best-intentioned magazine narrative can be undone by an overly provocative sales hook. The New Republic’s latest cover piece avoids the Rolling Stone trap of a cover image whose ironic message overwhelms the story’s point entirely. In fact, TNR’s photo of Bob Odenkirk as smarmy Breaking Bad lawyer Saul Goodman plays directly into the crowd-pleasing hook that TNR
uses to hype its big cover story this week about the death of Big Law.
But there’s the rub: A simple, valid business yarn gets hijacked by
narrative tricks that amount to a greater journalistic sin than trying
to humanize the Boston Marathon bombing suspect.
Let’s start with what’s good about the story by TNR senior editor Noam Scheiber.
By describing hard economic times in Big Law—the elite, global law
firms that serve huge corporate clients—Scheiber just might convince a
few English majors not to bother taking the LSATs. In case they’ve
missed the dozens of earlier opportunities to learn that a costly law
degree does not automatically entitle them to a life of wealth and
comfort, Scheiber’s vivid tale of one firm’s bloodletting over—what
else?—compensation should steer a few idealistic paper chasers into more
productive and surefire pursuits, like developing smartphone apps or
Colorado pot farming. Scheiber correctly notes an oversupply of pricey
legal talent in a down economy has led to a market resembling “some
grand psychological experiment involving rats in a cage with too few
But this is where the story breaks bad. From the cover lines and title
(“Big Law in Free Fall,” “The Last Days of Big Law”) to an outlandishly
flimsy nut graf (claiming just one in 10 top firms will survive the
imminent apocalypse, or so says “one common hypothesis” that then never
gets explained or examined), the story looks at one sore throat and
proclaims it a cancer pandemic. Its prognosis on the death of the
mid-sized full-service firm echoes a forecast made so many times it has
lost all credibility. Then the piece takes yet another giant step into
journalism hell by shooting readers through a time warp that
conveniently skips the past 30 or so years of Big Law business history.
Big Law has been declared dying for decades. Pieces touting the death of
Big Law have been written for decades. Unfortunately, “Big Law Still
Really, Really Dying,” while arguable (except where it’s still really,
really profitable), doesn’t sell copy. ...
But there’s a deeper instinct at work here, as well. Let’s call it the Vampire Squid meme. It’s been four years since Matt Taibbi called Goldman Sachs “a great vampire squid
wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood
funnel into anything that smells like money,” but it might as well have
been last week for that quote’s staying power. Scheiber’s story lacks
such instant branding, but it’s striving for it. Look at how the
magazine’s Laura Bennett distills the story, in a Q&A with cover model Odenkirk:
… basically it’s about the moral decay
of white-shoe law firms in the post-recession era, their descent into
hotbeds of backstabbing and greed.
This is crowd-pleasing stuff: the grade-grubbing, argumentative kid
in class who got too rich too soon but shows up at the high school
reunion divorced, drunk, and “between jobs.” Feel better about yourself
now? It’s a feel-good story for those of us who are heartened to hear
the news that “Big Law Still Really, Really Dying.”
At least the Odenkirk-as-Goodman cover makes us laugh instead of
cringe. And if it means that the world has at least one less starry-eyed
law student, then it will have achieved some good, too.