JON STEWART SHOULD HANDLE THIS ONE

Everyone in the media knows about the Friday afternoon “news dump.” It’s how the government, industry, and celebrities distribute stories that they hope will receive little public attention. These dumps happen on Friday afternoons because the items wind up in Saturday morning newspapers (and on websites) that draw far fewer readers than weekdays or Sundays.

The problem is that when a dump retracts a story that made earlier headlines, the injustices wrought by the original and incorrect report can persist. The Justice Department is the latest victim of that phenomenon. But the episode symbolizes a deeper problem: the power of talking heads, even when they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Perhaps you recall the late September headlines about the $16 muffins that showed up in an internal audit of Justice Department expenses associated with a judicial conference. The story was everywhere — network newscasts and front pages of newspapers. The NY Post was typical: “Feds $16 Muffin Hard to Swallow.” John Stossel used the muffins to launch one of his “government is too big” rants. FOX News brought out its stable of commentators to blast the feds. ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN highlighted their broadcasts with the revelation. Congressional Democrats and Republicans united in a rare act of bipartisan outrage.

Except it wasn’t true.

Within a day of the original story, Hilton Hotels disputed the inspector general’s conclusion, but most of the media ignored it. In fact, even after facts contradicting what had been dubbed “Muffin-gate” began to emerge, Bill O’Reilly continued to claim credit for “breaking the story” and to exploit it as an example of government waste. He was in rare form during his September 28 appearance on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

Which takes us to last Friday afternoon’s news dump. In the October 29, 2011 Saturday edition of the Times, an article appeared on page A11:

“Report of Justice Dept.’s $16 Muffin Greatly Exaggerated.”

It noted that the office of the Justice Department inspector general “retracted its much publicized claim that the agency had spent $16 per breakfast muffin at a conference. And it expressed regret for the ‘significant negative publicity’ for the department and the hotel that hosted the meeting….”

It turns out — as Hilton had first argued on September 22 — that the continental breakfast also included pastries, fruit, coffee, juice, taxes, a gratuity for the servers, and — oh yes — free use “of a ballroom and a dozen meeting rooms during the five-day conference.” Not a bad deal for a decent Washington, DC hotel.

This leads me to three points:

First, everyone should read Saturday newspapers more carefully.

Second, don’t rely on anyone to give you all of the facts, especially the talking heads on TV.

Third, Jon – the ball is in your court.

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER LAW FIRM MERGER

It’s now ancient history, but in 2002 Chicago-based Mayer, Brown & Platt (850 lawyers) joined with U.K-based Rowe & Maw (250 lawyers) in a law firm merger that seemed breathtaking. Today, combining firms has become a universal business strategy. Fourteen law firm mergers in the third quarter of 2011 alone brought this year’s total to 43.

Evaluating these ultimate lateral hiring events — wholesale combinations of independent enterprises — is a two-step process: first, defining success and, second, allowing sufficient time (measured in years) to observe results. Senior partners orchestrating such transactions have vested interests in making them look good. So do the management consultants cheering them on. Once they undertake a merger strategy, leaders take herculean steps to vindicate it. Their spin can distract from the downside, but it’s there.

Defining success

Management and its outside consultants often define success in deceptively simple terms: getting bigger and growing equity partner profits. That can be superficial and misleading.

Growth alone doesn’t create value. Recently, Minneapolis-based Faegre & Benson and Indianapolis-based Baker & Daniels announced the creation of Faegre Baker Daniels. Whatever economies of scale exist in the delivery of legal services, firms the size of Baker (320 lawyers) and Faegre (450 lawyers) seem large enough individually to have triggered them long ago. Will their 770-attorney firm operate more efficiently than two components half that size? Doubtful.

But this is certain: combined firms face more potential client conflicts than if they’d remained separate. That results from the interaction between the Rules of Professional Responsibility and arithmetic.

Some leaders promote a “bigger platform” as a way to entice prominent laterals. But bringing in seasoned outsiders makes preserving any firm’s culture even more challenging.

Culture shock

Then again, maybe there’s little culture to preserve after most significant combinations. Baker & Daniels is in the Am Law 200; so is Faegre. Together they’ll move into the Am Law 100. Is that a good thing?

Merger leaders always proclaim their determination to preserve each firm’s culture. But, those attending the first Faegre Baker Daniels partnership meeting won’t know half the people in the room. Likewise, being one of 100 equity partners is different from being one of more than 200 — and not in a way that enhances collegiality or a sense of community. Looking for a central identity or a geographic core from which senior partners working together can produce common principles? The new Faegre Baker Daniels firm won’t even have a national headquarters.

The winners

In the end, most merger proponents pander to the simplistic hope that synergy of the combined entity will produce value greater than the sum of its partner profits parts. If that happens, it’s a good deal economically for the survivors at the top. But many others may find themselves on the wrong side of a merger’s “restructuring opportunities” — a euphemism for shrinking the new equity partnership.

According to the latest Am Law listing, Baker & Daniels’ partnership has two tiers (equity and non-equity) and an equity partner leverage ratio of 1.71. Faegre has a single equity partner tier and a leverage ratio of 1.09. Something’s gotta give.

Faegre’s chairman Andrew Humphrey, a transactional attorney who will serve as the combined Faegre Baker Daniels chief executive partner, said the new firm would have a “unified compensation structure.” He plans to manage “partner expectations” and “incentivize people the right way.” I don’t know what he has in mind, but some current partners probably won’t like the results of that exercise.

Likewise, mergers put pressure on leaders to push everyone harder. They want to cite increases in billings, billable hours, and leverage as proof that the new institution is better. Never mind that no one will ever know what the base case — no merger — would have produced for either firm independently.

Even a short-term increase in partner profits doesn’t prove the long-term value of the transaction. For example, Howrey’s merger and lateral hiring binge began in 2001. Seven years later it had record profits, but by early 2011 the firm was gone.

I know, I know — Howrey was different. As I warned at the outset, beware of that spin-thing.

TOO LITTLE; TOO LATE

The ABA is thinking about punishing law schools that lie. What courage!

At the front end of the experience, intentionally inflated undergraduate GPAs and LSATs for Villanova’s admitted students led to an ABA censure in August. The school must now employ an independent compliance monitor for two years. Next up in the hot seat: the University of Illinois College of Law. Now, at the back end, the ABA is considering imposing penalties on law schools that misrepresent graduate job placement data.

This one-school-at-a-time approach misses the larger targets. Along with many law schools’ dubious sales tactics, the ABA itself has contributed to the chronic oversupply of lawyers.

Don’t let a recent Wall Street Journal article about the declining number of law school applicants fool you. Excess supply persists. Although total applicants are down ten percent from last year, the number of students starting law school has actually been rising. Meanwhile, the projected growth in new attorney jobs remains far below what’s required to achieve full employment for lawyers hoping to work as lawyers.

In the fall of 2002, first-year enrollment was 48,400. By 2009 — the last year for which the LSAC has published information — it had climbed to 51,600. In other words, demand still exceeds supply. This year’s ten percent applicant drop — to 78,900 — won’t prompt schools to reduce capacity. Rather, it will encourage growth.

And the ABA isn’t stopping them. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of law schools increased from 144 to 200. During the same period, the total number of law students soared from 64,000 to 145,000.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be only 98,000 net additional legal jobs for the entire decade ending in 2018. At current enrollments, law schools will produce five times that many graduates; baby boomer retirements won’t bridge that gap.

Last year’s drop in applicants may mean that some recent graduates are giving more thought to whether law school is the right path. That would be great news for them and the profession. Unfortunately, the accreditation of new schools and the growth of existing ones is bad news for many would-be lawyers.

Having facilitated a situation that continues to inflict tragic consequences on many unsuspecting victims, the ABA has avoided leading serious remedial efforts. In light of its recent punt on the requirement that law schools report meaningful information about their graduates’ employment status, its now-contemplated scrutiny of individual schools’ placement statistics rings hollow. To wit: the Wal-Mart greeter with a law degree still counts as employed.

The ABA’s piecemeal approach won’t solve the problem. Most law schools are prisoners of short-term profit-maxizing business models and metrics. That’s why too many resort to half-truths or outright deception to enhance U.S. News rankings, pump up demand, and put tuition-paying butts in classrooms.

Until students understand the deep methodological flaws in the U.S. News rankings, too many deans will continue manipulating them. Independent audit of the data that schools submit would help. But it should be part of a larger strategy: providing better information to prospective law students long before they sit for the LSAT.

The law can be a noble calling, but it’s not for everyone. When those enrolling in law school understand what’s ahead — including the possibility that their dream jobs won’t be there — they make better decisions and the entire profession wins. Here’s the harsh truth that will surprise many recruits: Some deans don’t act with much nobility when it comes to pursuing tuition dollars.

In an 1891 letter to his fiance, Louis Brandeis wrote: “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” Twenty years later, he was less optimistic about improving human behavior when he focused instead on practical remedies for misconduct: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

The ABA isn’t going to start stripping schools of their accreditations, but it can put them under brighter lights. Adding surveillance cameras and a few more cops on the beat wouldn’t hurt, either.

HUMBLE LEADERSHIP

Over a year ago, I considered the then newly-named dean of the Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria. He’s been an outspoken critic of MBA curriculum that fosters short-term thinking at the expense of ethics and long-term values.

Nohria’s appointment came after the economic collapse of 2008 caused many to rethink what I call the MBA mentality of misguided metrics. Business school faculty worried that they’d taught too narrowly — emphasizing the need to maximize short-term profits at the expense of important but less easily measured values. Some suggested that business management should become more like a profession, such as medicine or, ahem, law.

Unfortunately, the most visible and powerful segment of the legal profession — big law — had already evolved to mimic some of the business world’s worst features. Nohria would have to look elsewhere for guidance.

So I read with interest his recent Q&A in the Wall Street Journal. Ethics has been a centerpiece of his curriculum overhaul at Harvard. But he’s even more concerned that this new classroom emphasis won’t stick once students return to the workforce.

“[T]here seems to be a big difference between people’s understanding of their responsibilities as business leaders and their capacity to live up to those when faced with pressure or temptation,” he told the Journal.

Because those achieving power have more difficulty retaining their moral compasses, Nohria’s new mission is cultivating humility.

“Abraham Lincoln said people think that the real test of a person’s character is how they deal with adversity,” Nohria told the Journal. “A much better measure of a person’s character is to give them power. I’ve been more often disappointed with how people’s character is revealed when they’ve been given power.”

Author Jonah Lehrer made a similar observation in a WSJ article discussing one study’s conclusion that nice people have a better chance of advancing:

“Now for the bad news, which concerns what happens when all those nice guys actually get in power. While a little compassion might help us climb the social ladder, once we’re at the top we end up morphing into a very different kind of beast.”

What does this have to do with lawyers? Plenty, especially most of those who run big firms where power has become concentrated increasingly at the top.

“Before the recession,” one management consultant observed, the top-to-bottom ratio within equity partnerships “was typically five-to-one in many firms. Very often today, we’re seeing that spread at 10-to-1, even 12-to-1.”

Several months ago, one big firm leader offered the Journal this spin:

“Pay spreads widen as firms become more geographically diverse, operating in cities with varying costs of living, said Peter Kalis, chairman of K&L Gates. The firm’s pay spread rose from about 5-to-1 to as much as 9-to-1 in the past decade as it expanded. ‘Houses cost less in Pittsburgh than they do in London,’ Mr. Kalis said.”

It’s a nice soundbite, but for reasons I’ve outlined before, not particularly persuasive. (E.g., Are there no top-of-the-range equity partners at K&L Gates’ Pittsburgh headquarters?)

But here’s the larger point: K&L Gates ranked 105th out of 126 firms in The American Lawyer  2011 Mid-Level Associate Survey. The firm scored well below the national averages in morale, collegiality, associate relations, training and guidance, family-friendliness, and overall rating as a place to work.

Kalis deserves praise for inviting recruits seeking jobs at his firm to ask tough questions. They won’t pose this one, but any leader should consider it:

While those at the top of big firms have consolidated their wealth and power, does true leadership — measured by the positive energy that everyone else in the place exudes — seem absent in a lot of them?

If Nohria is correct that the test of character comes when a person gains power, many at the top of some big firms could do better. Then again, it all depends on the metrics by which they’re measured.

DEBT, DECEPTION, AND THE ABA

The ABA kicked the can down the road again. When law schools classify their most recent graduates as “employed” in 2012, they still won’t have to disclose whether the jobs are part-time or require passing the bar. Anything and everything counts — which leads to this question:

Q: When are some law schools like for-profit colleges?

A: Every day.

Both groups are under increasing scrutiny for similar tactics. The Wall Street Journal doesn’t like the new efforts to hold for-profit colleges accountable. Recently, it used those initiatives to bludgeon a favored target:

“Where there’s money, there are trial lawyers…”

After the many WSJ articles about the rise of corporate big law’s multi-millionaires, such special disdain for greedy, non-corporate trial lawyers seems somewhat disingenuous. But I digress.

The editorial criticizes the government’s intervention in a whistleblower’s False Claims Act case against a for-profit college system and concludes with this non-sequitur:

“If the government thinks such schools are unfairly benefitting from federal subsidies, then it should cut off grants to all college students.”

Whoa, Nelly!

The Journal sidesteps the most important questions that the False Claims Act cases raise and that apply equally to many law schools: How do institutions of higher education recruit students and what happens after they sign up? When colleges are accused of “a boiler-room style sales culture,” it’s no answer to say “a recruiter’s job is to recruit.” Surely, the Journal‘s editorial board understands the importance of truthful information to the proper functioning of free markets.

For example, here’s information that for-profit colleges are loathe to emphasize: their student drop-out rate is over 50 percent. According to one report, only 38 percent graduate within six years (compared to 53 and 64 percent for public and private non-profit institutions, respectively). Another report of the ten largest for-profit schools puts their graduation rate at 22 percent.

Law schools don’t have those stunning drop-out rates, but two other criticisms apply to many of them:

Encouraging students to take on debt that can’t be repaid. Bloomberg News reports that for-profit colleges enroll 12 percent of all undergraduates, receive 25 percent of all student loan dollars, and account for almost half of all defaults. Only a day after its editorial, the Journal reported that the for-profit default rate had soared to 15 percent, compared to non-profit rates of 7.2 and 4.6 for public and private schools, respectively.

Ironically, the same edition running the editorial attacking efforts to increase for-profit college accountability also contained a small item on the front page: “Vital Signs” — a graph with this accompanying description:

“Americans are borrowing more for student loans. In July, consumers owed the government about $386 billion, largely for student loans, up from $139 billion two years earlier. However, during the same period of time, consumers pulled back on other types of borrowing, such as credit cards and loans for automobiles.” [emphasis supplied]

Evidently, a standard hot-button topic for the Journal‘s editors — “wealth redistribution” — isn’t so bad when the redistribution is from students to their schools.

Law schools? Almost half of their graduates incur more than $100,000 in educational loans. But the real tragedy that the ABA continues to facilitate involves ongoing deception about the prospects for getting jobs needed to repay them.

Misleading employment stats. For-profit schools’ recent battle over federal “gainful employment ” regulations mirrors the controversy over the way many law schools report employment data. Prospective students read about graduates who are “employed,” even though they’re performing tasks that don’t require the degrees that schools are trying to sell them. Likewise, law schools can call their graduates employed, even if they’re greeters at Wal-Mart.

Overwhelming educational debt is one of many terrible things happening to the next generation under the guise of “letting the markets decide” — however imperfect or distorted those markets may be. Whether for-profit or, like most law schools, run as if they were, educational institutions that pursue the myopic short-term mission of filling classrooms with tuition-paying bodies do their students a disservice. As the cycle of deception-debt-no jobs produces a bubble that is already beginning to burst, the resulting damage to the country will become increasingly obvious, too. Some of the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters are already making that abundantly clear.