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When Knowledge is an Asset: Explaining the Organizational Structure of Large Law Firms

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  • James B. Rebitzer
  • Lowell J. Taylor

Abstract

We study the economics of employment relationships through theoretical and empirical analysis of an unusual set of firms, large law firms. Our point of departure is the "property rights" approach that emphasizes the centrality of ownership's legal rights to control important, non-human assets of the enterprise. From this perspective, large law firms are an interesting and potentially important object of study because the most valuable assets of these firms take the form of knowledge - particularly knowledge of the needs and interests of clients. We argue that the two most distinctive organizational features of large law firms, the use of "up or out" promotion contests and the practice of having winners become residual claimants in the firm, emerge naturally in this setting. In addition to explaining otherwise anomalous features of the up-or-out partnership system, this paper suggests a general framework for analyzing organizations where assets reside in the brains of employees.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 12583.

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Date of creation: Oct 2006
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Publication status: published as James B. Rebitzer & Lowell J. Taylor, 2007. "When Knowledge Is an Asset: Explaining the Organizational Structure of Large Law Firms," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 25, pages 201-229.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:12583

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  1. Holmstrom, Bengt & Milgrom, Paul, 1994. "The Firm as an Incentive System," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(4), pages 972-91, September.
  2. Garicano, Luis & Hubbard, Thomas N, 2007. "Managerial Leverage Is Limited by the Extent of the Market: Hierarchies, Specialization, and the Utilization of Lawyers' Human Capital," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 50(1), pages 1-43, February.
  3. Oliver Hart & Sanford Grossman, 1985. "The Costs and Benefits of Ownership: A Theory of Vertical and Lateral Integration," Working papers 372, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
  4. Landers, Renee M & Rebitzer, James B & Taylor, Lowell J, 1996. "Rat Race Redux: Adverse Selection in the Determination of Work Hours in Law Firms," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 86(3), pages 329-48, June.
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  7. Kahn, Charles & Huberman, Gur, 1988. "Two-sided Uncertainty and "Up-or-Out" Contracts," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 6(4), pages 423-44, October.
  8. Hart, Oliver & Moore, John, 1990. "Property Rights and the Nature of the Firm," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 98(6), pages 1119-58, December.
  9. Rebitzer, James B & Taylor, Lowell J, 1995. "Efficiency Wages and Employment Rents: The Employer-Size Wage Effect in the Job Market for Lawyers," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 13(4), pages 678-708, October.
  10. Waldman, Michael, 1990. "Up-or-Out Contracts: A Signaling Perspective," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 8(2), pages 230-50, April.
  11. Carmichael, H Lorne, 1988. "Incentives in Academics: Why Is There Tenure?," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 96(3), pages 453-72, June.
  12. Christopher Ferrall, 1991. "Promotion & Incentives in Partnerships: Theory & Evidence," Working Papers 808, Queen's University, Department of Economics.
  13. Armen A. Alchian & Harold Demsetz, 1971. "Production, Information Costs and Economic Organizations," UCLA Economics Working Papers 10A, UCLA Department of Economics.
  14. O'Flaherty, B. & Siow, A., 1989. "On The Job Screening, Up Or Out Rules, And Firm Growth," Discussion Papers 1989_02, Columbia University, Department of Economics.
  15. Jonathan Levin & Steven Tadelis, 2005. "Profit Sharing and the Role of Professional Partnerships," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 120(1), pages 131-171, January.
  16. Edward P. Lazear & Sherwin Rosen, 1979. "Rank-Order Tournaments as Optimum Labor Contracts," NBER Working Papers 0401, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  17. Kevin Lang & Peter-John Gordon, 1995. "Partnerships as Insurance Devices: Theory and Evidence," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 26(4), pages 614-629, Winter.
  18. Garicano, Luis & Hubbard, Thomas N., 2005. "Hierarchical sorting and learning costs: Theory and evidence from the law," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 58(2), pages 349-369, October.
  19. Malcomson, James M, 1984. "Work Incentives, Hierarchy, and Internal Labor Markets," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 92(3), pages 486-507, June.
  20. Stole, Lars A & Zwiebel, Jeffrey, 1996. "Organizational Design and Technology Choice under Intrafirm Bargaining," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 86(1), pages 195-222, March.
  21. Prendergast, Canice, 1993. "The Role of Promotion in Inducing Specific Human Capital Acquisition," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 108(2), pages 523-34, May.
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Cited by:
  1. Bardsley, Peter & Erkal, Nisvan & Nikiforakis, Nikos & Wilkening, Tom, 2013. "Recursive contracts, firm longevity, and rat races: An experimental analysis," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 61(C), pages 217-231.
  2. Nuno Garoupa & Fernando Gómez, 2002. "Cashing by the hour: Why large law firms prefer hourly fees over contingent fees," Economics Working Papers 639, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra.
  3. Paul Oyer & Scott Schaefer, 2012. "Firm/Employee Matching: An Industry Study of American Lawyers," NBER Working Papers 18620, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Ola Kvaløy & Trond E. Olsen, 2008. "Relative performance evaluation, agent hold-up and firm organization," NBER Chapters, in: Organizational Innovation and Firm Performance, pages 229-241 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Ann Bartel & Brianna Cardiff-Hicks & Kathryn Shaw, 2013. "Compensation Matters: Incentives for Multitasking in a Law Firm," NBER Working Papers 19412, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Naomi R. Lamoreaux & Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, 2006. "Corporate Governance and the Plight of Minority Shareholders in the United States before the Great Depression," NBER Chapters, in: Corruption and Reform: Lessons from America's Economic History, pages 125-152 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Cathrine Filstad & Petter Gottschalk, 2009. "How Knowledge Organizations Work: The Case of Real Estate Agencies," International Real Estate Review, Asian Real Estate Society, vol. 12(1), pages 88-97.
  8. Naomi Lamoreaux & Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, 2004. "Corporate Governance and the Plight of Minority Shareholders in the United States Before the Great Depression," NBER Working Papers 10900, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Maija Halonen-Akatwijuka, 2010. "Organizational Design, Technology and the Boundaries of the Firm," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 77(307), pages 544-564, 07.
  10. Lehmann, Jee-Yeon, 2011. "Job assignment and promotion under statistical discrimination: evidence from the early careers of lawyers," MPRA Paper 33466, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  11. Robert Gibbons, 1996. "Incentives and Careers in Organizations," NBER Working Papers 5705, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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