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Law - a Well-Paid Plantation System?

In the Introduction of our book Better Capitalism we shared a story that we’re discovering has hit a nerve. A law firm managing partner, in defense of the firm’s decision to raise billable hour requirements, told a group of its associates that “the practice of law is a plantation system, and you’re all very well paid.” Here's an excerpt:

A law firm where [Paul] was an associate was hosting an annual meeting and all the attorneys were in attendance. During a breakout session with the managing partner, whom we designate here simply as Mr. X, the conversation turned to the executive committee’s decision to raise attorney salaries. The raises were, of course, accompanied by a mandatory increase in the associate billing requirements to cover those raises and increase profits for the partners. Stressed associates began peppering Mr. X with questions about how they were to achieve work-life balance, an emerging concern in the legal industry. Mr. X appeared increasingly frustrated as he responded to questions.

Paul did not expect that conversation to resolve anything, so he stole a glance at his newly acquired Rolex to see how much time was left before lunch. He was still admiring his trophy when Mr. X landed his short and fateful defense. “Look,” he exhaled to the group, “the practice of law is a plantation system, and you’re all very well paid.”

The conversation was over then and there, and the phrase “plantation system” immortalized in Paul’s memory, if not too his spirit, by the image of him simultaneously admiring his Rolex and realizing it was the very evidence of Mr. X’s defense. Paul had just been sucker-punched by a truth that ticked him off.

We encourage you to pick up your copy of Better Capitalism and read the rest of this story, as well as the awakening impact of this managing partner’s statement. From there you’ll see how we unpack the term ‘plantation system’ and argue against plantation systems with the transformative framework of what we call ‘Partnership Economics.’

Photo Credit: Claudio Schwarz on

Walter Brueggemann accurately captured what we mean by ‘plantation’ and ‘partnership’ economics when he wrote: “‘Plantation’ in their usage refers to a winner-take-all economics that exploits others for self-advantage. ‘Partnership’ concerns an economic practice of mutuality that contributes to the common good while attending to one’s own interest.”

As a lawyer do I think the practice of law is inherently a plantation system? No, of course not. Are there law firms that are run with plantation system mentality and leadership? Yes, of course. But law firms are hardly an anomaly, although you’d think because they’re usually full of smart people they’d know better. Nevertheless, we’re confident the better law firms will help lead the change toward better capitalism.

What about you? Share your story, question, comment, idea, disagreement -- yes, we welcome disagreement for the sake of mutual benefit! -- with us at We will give a thoughtful response, with prioritized attention to emails from our subscribers. Subscribe here >>

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