THE GOLDMAN MODEL FOR BIG LAW?

Goldman Sachs has been in the news a lot lately. Taken together, several articles suggest parallels to big law. Anyone wondering where many large law firm leaders want to take their institutions — and how they might get there — should look closely at Goldman. As law firms have embraced metrics that maximize short-term partner profits, they’ve moved steadily in Goldman’s direction. If America follows Australia and the UK in permitting non-attorneys to invest in law firms, a tipping point could arrive.

Others ponder this possibility. Professor Mitt Regan, Co-Director of the Georgetown Center for the Study of the Legal Profession, has been thinking, writing, and speaking thoughtfully about non-lawyer investment in law firms for a long time. Understandably, most academic observers focus on the outside — how smaller firms’ access to capital could affect competition, the interaction with attorneys’ ethical obligations, and the like.

Those are important issues, but I’m more interested on the inside. Presumably, the process would involve current equity partners selling ownership interests to investors. Many of those in big law who already take a short-term economic view of their institutions would leap at the opportunity for a one-time payday that discounted future cash flows to today’s dollar. In fact, a big lump sum will tempt every equity partner who worries about next year’s annual review.

Then what? Perhaps Goldman has devised an adaptable mechanism. When it went public in 1999, Goldman Sachs retained a partnership system within a larger corporate structure. As the Times notes, “Goldman’s partners are its highest paid executives and it biggest stars….”

Consider the similarities to big law:

– Management

Traders displaced traditional investment bankers and chairman Lloyd Blankfein surrounded himself with “like-minded executives — ‘Lloyd loyalists,'” according to the Times. Transactional attorneys have similarly risen to lead many big law firms; dissent is not always a cherished value.

– Resulting culture changes

Seeking to represent all sides of a deal, Goldman became adept at managing conflicts rather than avoiding them, a former insider told the Times. Large law firms have developed standard retention letters that maximize their representational flexibility to take on more lucrative matters that might arise.

– Metrics

Goldman’s leverage ratio is stunning: 475 partners out of more than 35,000 employees. As a group, large firms have pulled up ladders, widened the top-to-bottom range within equity partnerships, and doubled attorney-to-equity partner leverage ratios between 1985 and 2010.

– Partner Wealth

Goldman’s partners are famously rich. Many big firm equity partners now enjoy seven-figure incomes previously reserved for media celebrities, professional athletes, and investment bankers.

All of this raises an important question: How well is the model working — and for whom? Maintaining the stability of such a regime presents challenges. Goldman partners maximize their continuing influence as minority shareholders by acting in unison on shareholder votes. But the cast of characters constantly changes. According to the Times, “Every two years, roughly 70 executives leave the club, by choice or because they are no longer pulling their weight. The average tenure is about seven years…Within five years of the IPO, almost 60 percent of the original partners were gone…”

In the end, the environment is problematic for many, as one former Goldman partner told the Times:

“It’s a very Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest firm.”

It could also be big law’s future. Then again, some firms may already be there.

Here’s a concluding thought: perhaps Goldman Sachs will become a big law outside investor that buys its way into the legal profession. That shouldn’t bother anyone. After all, Lloyd Blankfein graduated from Harvard Law School.

THE U OF C’s BIG LEAP FORWARD

My thanks to the standing room-only crowd that turned out to hear about my new legal thriller, The Partnership, at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. That delightful town is, of course, the home of a great university that includes a law school worthy of Thomas Jefferson’s pride.

While I was there, it occurred to me that when law schools get it wrong, they deserve the scorn that comes with a public spotlight. When they get it right, they should bask in its warm glow. The University of Chicago Law School recently got it right. Really right.

It’s ironic.  The home of the Chicago School — where free market self-interest reigns and the economic analysis of the law has been an article of faith for a long time — has adopted a loan repayment program that sends students this powerful message:

There’s more to life after law school than pursuing big law’s elusive financial brass rings. If you take the large firm path, do so because it’s what you want, not because you have no other financial options.

This must shock deans who have pandered to the large law firm constituencies that hire some graduates for the best-paying starting associate jobs. Former Northwestern Dean David Van Zandt made himself the most visible and ardent proponent of that approach. The U of C’s new program doesn’t ignore big law as a potential employer of its graduates. In fact, it led all other schools in the NLJ 250‘s most recent list of big firms’ “go-to schools.” But it now tells the country’s top students that even if they don’t want big law, the U of C still still wants them — so much that it will pay their way.

It’s unique. For example, Harvard has a respectable Low-Income Protection Program. In 2008, it went a step farther and announced a plan forgiving third-year tuition in return for five years of post-graduate public service, but overwhelming student demand made it a casualty of the financial crisis. In its place, Harvard now provides limited funds to encourage public interest work on a case-by-case basis. Other schools, including Northwestern, have loan forgiveness programs, too, but none appears to be as good as the University of Chicago’s new one.

A single line from its website description says it all:

“This means that a graduate who engages in qualifying work for 10 years, earns less than the salary cap, and maintains enrollment in the federal Income-Based Repayment Program, will receive a FREE University of Chicago Law School education!”

“Qualifying work” is public interest broadly defined as “the full-time practice of law, or in a position normally requiring a law degree, in a non-profit organization or government office, other than legal academia.” It includes judicial clerkships.

The “salary cap” is $80,000 and doesn’t include spousal income. That combination seems to beat Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. (Caveat: The differences across school programs can be significant and prospective students should consider their own circumstances, run the numbers, and determine which one produces the best individual result.)

The program is a reasoned response to practical realities. First, big law cannot accommodate all top law school graduates, even if deans try to put them there and all want to go.

Second, the burden of law school debt shapes career decisions that lead too many lawyers to dissatisfying careers and unhappy lives, especially in large firms.

Third, the upcoming generation of prospective attorneys wants options other than large firms. To be sure, many lawyers find that such places are a good fit for their personalities and ambitions. But in recent years, such individuals have become a shrinking minority of the people heading in that direction. The profession should encourage attorneys who will become unhappy in such institutions to avoid them in the first place. Imagine a big law world populated exclusively with lawyers who wanted to be there.

Finally, the program is a reminder that the law is a great calling. Law schools aren’t big law assembly lines, grinding out graduates for firms where nobility too often yields to a business school mentality that prizes misguided metrics — billings, billable hours, leverage ratios, and average partner profits — above all else. The best law schools are uniquely positioned to level a playing field that now tilts students toward large firms.

Whatever else they accomplish, the U of C’s actions bring important attention to student alternatives that sometimes get lost in the myopic focus on big law. Now that’s leadership.

HOWREY’S LESSONS: A NATIONAL CONVERSATION

My latest “Commendable Comments” award goes to a non-lawyer, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Steven Pearlstein.

Since I started my blog a year ago, two of my most popular articles have been “Howrey’s Lessons” and “Howrey’s Lessons — Part II.” Versions recently ran on Am Law Daily, where they also attracted widespread attention.

I don’t know if Pearlstein was among the thousands who saw my analysis of Howrey’s end and its relationship to ubiquitous big law trends, but his March 20 column reinforces my themes. If I hadn’t been attending the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville to discuss The Partnership, I might have missed it. I’m glad I didn’t.

Both of my Howrey articles focused on a central point: What matters most are not the things that make the once venerable institution different from other large firms. Rather, the true significance of its death lies in what makes the firm similar to many, many others. Intelligent lawyers who specialize in distinguishing adverse precedent prefer to think otherwise; they do so at their peril.

Noting as I had that, as recently as 2008, the DC-oriented Legal Times hailed Howrey’s final chairman, Robert Ruyak, as one of 30 “visionaries,” Pearlstein describes how quickly the world turned. In the end, I found Ruyak’s litany of claimed contributors to the firm’s demise — clients demanding contingency fee arrangements; conflict problems that made European growth problematic; and the rise of competitive electronic discovery vendors — unpersuasive; I explained why in “Howrey’s Lessons — Part II.” Pearlstein is more charitable in accepting such excuses at face value. That’s understandable because he’s never worked in a large firm.

But on the big picture, his assessment echoes my earlier observations:

1. Howrey’s global expansion through lateral hiring created a firm of free agents who lacked the deep loyalties that once characterized the firm. That phenomenon wasn’t unique to Howrey.

2. Pearlstein notes that profits per partner has become “not only the key determinant of how much partners take home, but it is the metric by which the very competitive and ambitious people in the legal business keep score.” My regular readers know that the business school mentality of misguided metrics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios aimed at increasing partners’ short-term profits — has transformed a once noble profession in unfortunate ways.

3.  Pearlstein observes that when Howrey’s average partner profits took a downward turn, the partnership — which wasn’t really a partnership in the way most people understand that concept — found that its “bonds of loyalty [were] not strong enough to hold Howrey together.” In “Howrey’s Lessons,” I put it this way: “[W]hen cash becomes king, partnership bonds remain only as tight as the glue that next year’s predicted equity partner profits provide….”

Likewise, Pearlstein’s overall conclusion is identical to mine: The most troubling aspect of Howrey’s death is that “the industry seems to have learned nothing from such episodes.”  He closes with an acknowledgement of the widespread problem of partner and associate dissatisfaction that the prevailing big law culture has exacerbated.

On only one point would I offer this limited qualification to Pearlstein’s survey of the legal blogosphere concerning Howrey. He suggests that the media (press and blogs) offer “the same uncritical acceptance of…a world in which firms are held together by nothing more than a collective determination to increase profit per partner.” Respectfully, I offer my ongoing commentary over the past year as a consistent voice in challenging the prevailing big law model.

When an intelligent, sophisticated observer such as Steven Pearlstein takes a seemingly isolated issue involving lawyers — that is, Howrey’s disintegration — and uses his national platform to shine a welcome light on a deeper professional problem, it becomes that much more difficult for big law leaders to ignore. They’ll continue to turn a blind eye to the incubating crisis, but perhaps they’ll rest just a little bit less easily in doing so.

Pearlstein’s prize is a copy of The Partnership, which I will send him this week. I’m confident that, as an interested outsider, he’ll find it fascinating.

HOWREY’S LESSONS — PART II

I wasn’t going to write another article about Howrey. But then I read chairman Robert Ruyak’s explanations for his firm’s collapse, together with columnist Peggy Noonan’s review of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s new book. The two men have more in common than the first two letters of their last names. Both are at the center of dramatically unfortunate episodes that occurred on their respective watches. Both look for villains and miss the bigger picture.

Former Reagan speechwriter and conservative columnist Noonan opens her review with this: “I found myself flinging his book against the wall in hopes I would break its stupid little spine…You’d expect [Rumsfeld] to be reflective, to be self-questioning, and questioning of others, and to grapple with the ruin…He heard all the conversations. He was in on the decisions. You’d expect him to explain the overall, overarching strategic thinking that guided them. Since those decisions are in the process of turning out badly,…you’d expect him to critique and correct certain mindsets so that [others] will learn.” He doesn’t.

Those words also describe Ruyak’s unsatisfying explanations for Howrey’s failure:

1.  European offices:

“The real problem we ran into in Europe was conflicts of interest…It’s a different analysis in Europe. But we had to apply the U.S. standards across Europe. That made it difficult to grow because we had to forgo a lot of cases…”

Analysis of potential conflicts issues should have anchored any business plan that began with London (2001) and continued with high-powered lateral acquisitions in Brussels (2002), Amsterdam (2003), Paris (2005), Munich (2007), and Madrid (2008). By July 2008, Howrey was Managing Intellectual Property‘s “Top U.S. Firm in Europe” with more than 100 lawyers there and plans for more.

More importantly, firms survive conflicts-related departures. But here, 26 European lawyers (12 partners, 14 associates) in October 2010 supposedly set off a chain reaction that crushed an otherwise healthy, 550-attorney firm that, only a decade earlier, had no European presence.

2.  Document discovery vendors.

“We created a whole portion of the firm to handle [document discovery] efficiently – using staff attorneys and sometimes temporary people, computer systems and facilities.” Along came some companies that were “offering to do this work less expensively at a lower price.”

But in May 2009, Ruyak had attributed part of Howrey’s Am Law 100-leading revenue surge to avoiding “areas that suffered significant downturns,” singling out for praise the firm’s five-year-old document review and electronic discovery center that added $47 million to the top line. So successful was the Falls Church operation that he was considering a second one on the West Coast. (The American Lawyer, May 2009, p.118)

Yet somehow, 75 staff attorneys and 100 temps accounting for 8% of Howrey’s $570 million gross in 2008 became a key contributor to the firm’s demise two years later.

3.  Contingent and alternative fees

“Unlike corporations that operate on an accrual basis, it’s hard to adjust from a cash base on your business to an accrual base where you are deferring significant amounts of revenue into future time periods. Once you make that adjustment, I think it works. But the adjustment period is difficult.”

In other words, partners couldn’t tolerate the deferred gratification associated with contingency fee matters. But they loved the upside. In 2008, Howrey’s average partner profits jumped almost 30% — to $1.3 million. When PPP dropped to $850,000 in 2009, Ruyak said 2008 had been an aberration resulting from $35 million in contingency receipts. (The American Lawyer, May 2010, p. 101)

Perhaps inadvertently, he revealed the real culprit: a revolution of rising expectations among the already rich. Ruyak put it this way: “Partners at major law firms have very little tolerance for change.”

If he’s referring to firms that have lost cohesion and a shared purpose beyond a myopic focus on current profits exceeding the last year’s, he’s right. But that culture exists for a reason. Aggressive lateral growth produces partners who don’t know each other. Firm allegiances become tenuous; the institutions themselves become fragile.

Ruyak’s self-serving explanations avoid accepting personal responsibility, but that’s not their greatest fault. The bigger problem is that other law firm leaders will find false comfort in his litany; it encourages the view that Howrey’s challenges were unique. As I said before, they weren’t.

LAW SCHOOL DECEPTION — PART II

The National Law Journal just published its annual list of “go-to” schools — those that supply the most new associates to large law firms. Clearly, lower tier students aren’t alone in struggling to find jobs. One top school’s ride on the NLJ 250 rankings roller coaster is particularly interesting and instructive.

Northwestern jumped from eleventh to second place on the list in 2007. Then-Dean David Van Zandt credited the “tremendous effort to reach out to employers,” along with the emphasis on enrolling students with significant postgraduate work experience, as attracting big firm recruiters. Last year, Northwestern took the number one spot.

But in 2010, the school dropped to eighth — a relative decline that overall market trends don’t explain, but growing class size does. Northwestern awarded 234 JDs in 2007; the 2010 class had 50 more — 284. One reason: misguided short-term metrics became guiding principles.

Two years ago, the ABA Journal reported that Northwestern had become one of the most aggressive recruiters of transfer students (adding 43 to the first-year class). Such students were a win-win for short-term metrics-lovers: Their undisclosed LSATs didn’t count in the U.S. News rankings and their added tuition boosted the financial bottom line.

Meanwhile, Northwestern’s “go-to” position could continue dropping next year because the class of 2011 will include another new contingent — the first group of accelerated JDs. That program emerged from focus groups of large law firm leaders — part of the dean’s outreach program — who helped to shape Northwestern’s long-range strategic document, Plan 2008, Building Great Leaders for the Changing World.

That leads to another point: leadership. Defining a law school’s proper mission is critically important. There’s nothing wrong with getting input from all relevant constituencies, including large law firms. But retooling curriculum to fulfill big law’s stated desires for associate skills is a dubious undertaking.

In February 2010, Van Zandt explained his contrary rationale during a PLI presentation to large firm leaders. Simply put, he saw starting salaries as setting the upper limit that a school can charge for tuition. Accordingly, attending law school makes economic sense only if it leads to a job that offers a reasonable return on the degree’s required financial investment. However valid that perspective may be, the slipperiness of the resulting slope became apparent when Northwestern’s laudable goal — updating curriculum — focused on satisfying big firms that paid new graduates the most.

Tellingly, in the ABA’s Litigation quarterly, Van Zandt explained that high hourly rates made clients “unwilling to pay for the time a young lawyer spends learning on the job…As a result, the traditional training method of associate-partner mentoring gets sacrificed.” Law schools, he urged, should pick up that slack.

But the traditional training method gets sacrificed only because the firms’ prevailing business model doesn’t reward such uses of otherwise billable time. Rather than challenge leaders to reconsider their own organizations that produce staggering associate attrition rates and many dissatisfied attorneys, the dean embraced their short-term focus — maximizing current year profits per partner.

Relatively, Northwestern still fares well in the “go-to” rankings, but the data depict a dynamic exercise in magical thinking. Among the top 20 schools, it led the way in increasing class size as the school’s absolute big law placement numbers steadily declined: 172 in 2007; 154 in 2008; 142 in 2009; 126 in 2010.

Most law schools feel the continuing crunch. Overall, the top 50 law schools graduated 14,000 new lawyers in 2010; only 27% went to NLJ 250 firms — a drop of three percentage points (400 lawyers) from 2009. But that only highlights an obvious question: Why should that shrinking tail wag any dog? A diversified portfolio of career outcomes less dependent on large firms is a more prudent plan for schools and their students.

Even if jobs reappear, there’s another reason to combine balance with candor: Recent surveys indicate that a majority of large firm attorneys become dissatisfied with their careers anyway. Those metrics never appear on law school websites. Deans are uniquely positioned to help prospective students make informed decisions. They could serve the profession by focusing less on marketing and more on giving prospective students the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If only there were a metric for it.