Meanwhile, those lucky enough to have a job are constantly reminded of their expendability. “I knew people who had month-to-month leases who were making $200,000 a year,” says an associate who joined a New York firm in 2010. They are barred from meetings and conference calls to hold down a client’s bill, even pulled off of cases entirely. They regularly face mass layoffs. Many of the tasks they performed until five or ten years ago—like reviewing hundreds of pages of documents—are outsourced to a reserve army of contract attorneys, who toil away at one-third the pay. “All these people kept on going into this empty office,” recalls a former associate at a Washington firm. “No one introduced them. They were on the floor wearing business suits. … It was extremely creepy.” Still, any associate tempted to resent these scabs should consider the following: Legal software is rapidly replacing them, too.

Part of the reason the law-firm ecosystem has changed so dramatically in a single generation is greed: The most profitable partners steadily discarded their underachieving colleagues, because they didn’t want to share the spoils. And part of the reason is the brutal recession that began in 2007, prompting corporations to slash every conceivable expense, law firms included. But the biggest problem is that there are simply many, many more high-priced lawyers today than there is high-priced legal work…

There are currently between 150 and 250 firms in the United States that can claim membership in the club known as Big Law, the group of historically profitable firms that cater to the country’s largest corporations. The overwhelming majority of these still operate according to a business model that assumes, at least implicitly, that clients will insist upon the best legal talent instead of the best bargain for legal talent. That assumption has become rickety. Within the next decade or so, according to one common hypothesis, there will be at most 20 to 25 firms that can operate this way—the firms whose clients have so many billions of dollars riding on their legal work that they can truly spend without limit. The other 200 firms will have to reinvent themselves or disappear.