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

  • James B. Rebitzer
  • Lowell J. Taylor

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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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
Note: LS IO
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  1. Grossman, Sanford J & Hart, Oliver, 1985. "The Cost and Benefits of Ownership: A Theory of Vertical and Lateral Integration," CEPR Discussion Papers 70, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Joseph Farrell and Suzanne Scotchmer., 1986. "Partnerships," Economics Working Papers 8616, University of California at Berkeley.
  9. Brendan O'Flaherty & Aloysius Siow, 1992. "On the Job Screening, up or out Rules, and Firm Growth," Canadian Journal of Economics, Canadian Economics Association, vol. 25(2), pages 346-68, May.
  10. Raghuram G. Rajan & Luigi Zingales, 2001. "The Firm As A Dedicated Hierarchy: A Theory Of The Origins And Growth Of Firms," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 116(3), pages 805-851, August.
  11. Lazear, Edward P & Rosen, Sherwin, 1981. "Rank-Order Tournaments as Optimum Labor Contracts," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 89(5), pages 841-64, October.
  12. Steven Tadelis & Jonathan Levin, 2004. "Profit Sharing and the Role of Professional Partnerships," 2004 Meeting Papers 156, Society for Economic Dynamics.
  13. 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.
  14. Michael Waldman, 1989. "Up-or-Out Contracts: A Signaling Perspective," UCLA Economics Working Papers 556, UCLA Department of Economics.
  15. 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.
  16. Holmstrom, Bengt & Milgrom, Paul, 1994. "The Firm as an Incentive System," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(4), pages 972-91, September.
  17. Garicano, Luis & Hubbard, Thomas, 2005. "Managerial Leverage is Limited By the Extent of the Market: Hierarchies, Specialization and the Utilization of Lawyers' Human Capital," CEPR Discussion Papers 4924, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  18. Armen A. Alchian & Harold Demsetz, 1971. "Production, Information Costs and Economic Organizations," UCLA Economics Working Papers 10A, UCLA Department of Economics.
  19. Christopher Ferrall, 1991. "Promotion & Incentives in Partnerships: Theory & Evidence," Working Papers 808, Queen's University, Department of Economics.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
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