The Cravath Tournament: Winner-Take-All Leads to Brutal Competition at Top Firms


While official workplace policies seem to be more and more worker-friendly, Noam Scheiber’s "Work Policies May Be Kinder, but Brutal Competition Isn’t" in the New York Times argues that "brutal competition remains an inescapable component of workers’ daily lives" and is actually getting worse. The problem is familiar to law firm attorneys: there are a lot of people entering a system at the bottom, but at the top, there are only a few plum jobs:

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Part of the reason this system has worked is that those who don't make partnership aren't losers who are just chewed up and spat out (although many would argue it feels that way at the time). Instead, they still walk away with excellent credentials, training, and professional connections that they can parley into other top-level positions. And, of course, there are enough people still gunning for partnership that the ranks are continually re-filled by other attorneys seeking their chance at the winning Powerball ticket.

Given the number of Type A, overachievers top law firms attract, "worker-friendly" policies attract good publicity, but don't do much to change the day-to-day experience of the lawyers. And, of course, many attorneys are choosing to opt-out of these winner-take-all systems altogether and are setting up law firms based on a variety of different models.

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How will those news systems fare? Will top law firms like Cravath be able to continue to compete using their current model? Time will tell.