The Leader Column

Perhaps, in the end, it was a blessed release. Brobeck Phleger & Harrison's death rattle was drawn out long enough. Its vote for dissolution last week represents not only the biggest collapse of a professional services firm since Andersen, but probably the biggest collapse of any law firm since Finley Kumble in the 1980s.

Unlike Finley Kumble, which famously paid out profits on projected future income rather than collected bills, Brobeck still had a viable business, if nowhere near the grand, over-extended Tower Snow-inspired vision of the late 1990s. Yes, losing Snow's team to Clifford Chance and then Jim Elaqua's team to Dewey Ballantine hurt badly last year, but the management was doing the right things. It paid off part of the debt to Citibank, moved some of the partners onto fixed income status and restructured some of the firm's lease obligations. Perhaps the mistake was to predicate its entire future on pulling off a merger. (Theodore Goddard, take note.)

Here was the mistake: merging with Morgan Lewis & Bockius had become an end in itself, and Brobeck simply couldn't deliver its own partnership. Despite the oath of loyalty demanded by the management last November, the firm had become fractured past redemption and the last fragile ribbon of collegiality had disintegrated.

That said, collegiality will not always save a partnership. When Wilde Sapte (as it was then) was rejected by Andersen back in 1998, it wasn't its collective ethos that saved it. It held together because of an extraordinary provision in the partnership deed that only allowed two equity partners to leave in any year.

So, Mr Snow. How do you feel? There will be a lot of Brobeck partners who will hold you personally responsible. Feelings were running high enough back in May when they broke off the key in the lock of your office; a symbolic enough castration, if perhaps on the crude side. Imagine their feelings now. Partners and associates have just a couple of weeks to find new firms, which has led to a feeding frenzy for headhunters. The partners may be okay; for the associates, things will be a whole lot tougher.

In the meantime, if you want to see some pathos, try visiting the Brobeck website. It was still there on Friday, brightly recounting opportunities for associates, all-star clients, fast-growth markets and big benefits. But it's the tagline that almost brings a lump to your throat: “Brobeck: When your future is at stake.”