It would be the biggest law-firm collapse in history, writes Dan Slater. Management experts point to a deadly combination of general economic malaise and the firm’s particular mismanagement

When Aaron Sorkin conjured Sam Seaborn, the fictional White House staffer inThe West Wing, he wanted to invest the character, played by Rob Lowe, with a distinguished pedigree. So Seaborn graduated magna cum laude from Princeton, edited the law review at Duke, and cut his teeth at a famous law firm, Dewey Ballantine.

In the late 1990s when The West Wing was conceived, it was an obvious choice: Dewey, a powerhouse in corporate law since the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, had 500 lawyers in offices around the world. It was spoken of in the same breath as other old-line New York firms, many of them recognizable to the general public, such as Cravath Swaine & Moore, Sullivan & Cromwell, and Debevoise & Plimpton.
A few years later, Hollywood came calling. Dewey’s opulent offices in midtown Manhattan were used to shoot scenes for the George Clooney legal thrillerMichael Clayton. In 2007, Dewey’s dominance was only expected to grow when it pulled off the largest law-firm merger in history, joining ranks with LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, creating a 1,300-lawyer firm with annual revenues of about $1 billion.
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Dan Slater, a legal journalist and former litigator, is the founder and editor of The LongForum, a website that promotes the best of long-form journalism. He is writing a book about the online-dating business, to be published by Penguin in 2013.