FROM KENTUCKY TO CRAVATH TO CHASE

Six months ago, I wrote about a new development at Cravath. (http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/06/03/a-better-alternative-or-a-leap-from-the-frying-pan/) The Wall Street Journal reported that the firm was allowing lawyers in their 30s and 40s to “make a name for themselves” by taking the lead on client deals. Tradition dictated deference to elders in such matters, but Cravath’s lock-step system meant that “older attorneys didn’t mind because the pay they received didn’t get cut” as younger attorneys gained a higher profile. (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703630304575270472434024454.html)

“‘We’re more aggressive than we used to be,’ said 41-year-old Cravath partner James Woolery. ‘This is not your grandfather’s Cravath.’ He said the new approach means more ‘hustling for loose balls’ than in the past.”

When the article appeared, I wondered if Cravath’s experiment would backfire, leading young partners to consolidate clients, billings, and power for personal gain — even, perhaps. chafing at Cravath’s vaunted lock-step system. After all, financially motivated defections now pervade big law.

Alternatively, I speculated that allowing eager lawyers to run with client batons could be a win-win situation. If they remained loyal, the upstarts could grow the entire pie in true partner-like fashion.

I missed the obvious: Some rising young partners at Cravath didn’t want to be lawyers anymore. Woolery himself is now leaving to co-head JP Morgan Chase’s North American mergers and acquisitions. ((http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/01/20/cravaths-woolery-to-join-jpmorgan-as-senior-deal-maker/)

“I’ve had a business management focus, even at Cravath, and this opportunity allows me to expand that,” Wollery told the Times. He said the move would allow him to build on skills that he’d been honing, including business development.

Business development?

He elaborated for the Am Law Daily:

“Woolery points to his experience running Cravath’s business development group as the driving factor behind his decision to move to J.P. Morgan. In the five years that he has led the group, it has evolved from a pitch book operation to a more substantial research and development group consisting of 30 professionals — corporate and litigation attorneys, and analysts.

“‘Doing that work was what led me to wanting to do this job [at J.P. Morgan].’” (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2011/01/woolery.html)

From the University of Kentucky College of Law to Cravath partner, he now moves to a position that doesn’t even require a law degree. Maybe there’s more behind Woolery’s move — more money, more challenges — who knows? But a successful young lawyer in search of more clients found a client in search of him, albeit not for his skills as an attorney.

Big firm lawyers are increasingly assuming non-attorney corporate positions. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/12/lawyers-ceos.html) It’s additional proof of the profession’s transformation to a business: Many large law firms have developed cultures that make them training grounds for corporate leaders. Fully corporatized lawyers don’t even need an MBA to advance. (Woolery doesn’t have one.)

As an educator of students tracking themselves toward the law, I wonder how rising legal stars now leaving the profession altogether would answer these questions:

ON LAW SCHOOL

Why did you attend law school in the first place? Like many others, did you view it as the last bastion of a liberal arts major who couldn’t decide what to do next? Did you regard it as a circuitous path to a corporate career? If so, wouldn’t getting an MBA have been more efficient?

ON THEIR JOBS

Did your legal work and resulting career match your expectations? If not, in what ways — good and bad?

ON LIFE

Have you enjoyed a satisfying career? Have changes in you, your firm, or the profession played a role in your departure from the profession? It’s not just about money, is it?

Most big law attorneys say they’re too busy billing hours to consider these questions at all, much less on a regular basis. It reminds me of Yogi Berra’s response to his wife’s complaints as they got lost while he drove to Cooperstown for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

“I know we’re lost,” he finally admitted, “but we’re making good time!”

Yogi arrived at his desired destination. Too many lawyers never think about theirs — and then wonder why they’re dissatisfied professionally.

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7 thoughts on “FROM KENTUCKY TO CRAVATH TO CHASE

  1. Interesting post. I recently left BigLaw for an in-house corporate counsel position and I can see the potential of assuming a non-legal role at some point. If that happens, I do not believe I will view law school as an inefficient use of time – I started law school with the thought of being a general counsel. If I veer off along the way, my actions until that point were still (somewhat) necessary.

    I do not agree with your statement that attorneys never think about these questions. My coworkers and I at the firm discussed these issues constantly – almost annoying so. I don’t know a single group of people who are more introspective than attorneys.

  2. As always, a great post.

    Three and one half decades in the profession, working shoulder to shoulder with lawyers led me long ago to understand that most lawyers were once kids who studied extremely hard in high school in order to get in to a good college. Once they got in to college, they singularly focused on getting good grades in order to get in to a good law school. Having achieved that milestone, they then worked even harder in law school to get a BigLaw position. They then sacrificed the balance of the flower of their youth by working ungodly hours for what they thought was one of the two grand prizes of life: (1) a client – working in house; or (2) Partnership.

    Mark Hermann, in today’s Above the Law (http://abovethelaw.com/2011/01/inside-straight-where-law-is-not-king/ ) , took the former route and laments about the lack of fulfillment in house lawyering frequently brings.

    As for those few who do grab the other brass ring and make it to partnership, some, like James Woolrey, still yearn for the ostensibly greener grass and want to be clients, not lawyers. Others who made it to the partnership, often view their next conquest is to become a Lateral Partner (http://kowalskiandassociatesblog.com/2011/01/27/going-lateral-the-essential-guide-for-a-law-firm-partner-seeking-to-make-a-lateral-move/ ).

    A select wise few opt for more personal fulfillment and elect to make enduring differences in people’s lives by teaching at both the undergraduate level and law school level, while pursuing a passion for writing – both perceptive analyses about the profession and gripping fiction (like, http://www.amazon.com/Partnership-Novel-Steven-J-Harper/dp/0984369104 ).

    In the end, how many will be singing “Is That All There Is?” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VscVP_Gt_s )

    Jerry Kowalski

  3. Thirty-five years ago or so, in high school and college history courses you might run across a DWM like Elihu Root that you might wish to emulate. To even attempt to be that type of lawyer today, though it helps to be in a recognized firm, you will always be fending off your partners’ attempts to make you work on less interesting but more remunerative (for them, anyway) things. This is to be under no illusion that law is not a business – it was in the gilded age, too – but to suggest that many lawyers have, or at least had, a purpose which is not merely to run a successful business. I’m not sure that is as true today as it was in the past. That is not a reflection on the law, but society. Look at law professor Amy Chua. What was her goal in raising her children the way she did? That seems to me to be a far more important question than whether her method was a good one. But who is asking it?

    One of the things I have noticed over the years is that the quality of the lawyers who “lead” the major firms as lawyers seems to be to be getting worse and worse even while the business skills, at least in terms of rising PPP, get better. It used to be that a business generator tended to be someone good at what he did, but taking in so much he trained others to help him. You’d go to the top if a question flummoxed you. Now, the top business generators seem to be more salesmen with only a thin level of knowledge – I don’t think many of them could do the legal work they claim credit for if they had to, and it does not seem to bother them, so long as the clients don’t find out.

    As you note, I think those fellows had a different idea of what they were signing up for with the legal profession than I did. They have different goals.

  4. The joke is not original to Yogi Berra, at least at the time of his 1972 induction. My father used the same joke before I entered high school, which was in 1960.

    • I don’t doubt you. In “The Yogi Book — I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said,” he acknowledged using the line during an exchange with his wife on their way to Cooperstown in 1972. That doesn’t exclude the possibility that he’d used (or heard) the line earlier. Maybe one of my readers can enlighten all of us on its origins.

  5. The earliest attribution for this quote that I could find was on the trip to Cooperstown. In re-reading your piece, Steve, I might suggest that there is room for an additional apt quote from Yogi: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

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