A MODERN TRAGEDY IN FIVE ACTS

The American Lawyer‘s November cover story tells the sad tale of Jonathan Bristol. His client, Ken Starr, was a high-profile financial adviser to celebrities. (Starr is no relation to his namesake, the former Whitewater special prosecutor and current president of Baylor University.) In 2009, one of Starr’s clients, Uma Thurman, began asking tough questions for which he had no answers. Last year, he pleaded guilty to investment adviser fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering.

Starr’s scheme doesn’t interest me; his lawyer does. Bristol’s saga reflects the 30-year evolution of an attorney and his profession. Indeed, because many of Bristol’s experiences look so familiar, some lawyers will find his story unsettling. At least, they should.

ACT ONE

His path into the law was typical — Amherst College (magna cum laude), followed by the University of Virginia Law School. Undergraduates throughout the country still identify with ambitions that Bristol probably held when he was their age — do well at a top college; get into a first-rate law school; enjoy a rewarding career. What could go wrong?

ACT TWO

After graduating in 1981, he went to a boutique Manhattan firm, Dreyer & Traub, where he practiced real estate finance law. Many would say that, today, such a job looks even more appealing as a big law alternative than it was then: smaller, more collegial, better sense of community.

ALM reporter Ross Todd writes, “as a junior partner in Dreyer & Traub’s waning days, Bristol needed to find clients and bill hours.” That was true in the mid-1990s and it’s worse today. Most big firm senior partners say they want aggressive attorney-entrepreneurs, but they ignore the perilous downside. Bristol found clients all right, but eventually he, they, and his firm became defendants themselves. I don’t know why Dreyer & Traub collapsed, but along with a lot of other small firms, it’s gone. So are some bigger ones.

ACT THREE

After leaving Dreyer & Taub in the spring of 1995, Bristol went through a succession of firms before landing at Brown, Raysman, Millstein, Felder & Steiner. In December 2006, Brown Raysman joined Thelen, Reid & Priest in the largest merger of that year. Some blame that transaction for Thelen’s dissolution less than two years later. Since then, lots of mergers have failed; more will follow.

ACT FOUR

In November 2008, Winston & Strawn picked up Bristol and 18 other former Thelen lawyers. Although his annual compensation for 2009 and 2010 was set at $1.35 million, in mid-2009 he agreed to reduce his guaranteed amount to $500,000. His metrics — billables, billable hours, and leverage ratio — must have been in deep trouble. That’s how most big firms measure value.

Bristol’s world continued to collapse as his biggest client, Starr, got behind on his legal bills. The amount — $750,000 — may not seem large for a firm with gross revenues of more than $700 million in 2010. But for a partner already wilting under the heat of the short-term metrics spotlight, it provided tippping-point pressure. Bristol allowed Starr to transfer stolen funds through his personal attorney escrow accounts.

ACT FIVE

In a request to delay sentencing, Bristol’s lawyer wrote that his client’s childhood left considerable emotional scarring: “For much of his adult life, Mr. Bristol has been in therapy to treat depression and anxiety.” If he suffered from those afflictions in college, he couldn’t have chosen a less suitable career.

From all of this, endless lessons emerge: know yourself; know your partners; scrutinize lateral hires; don’t assume anything about an attorney just because he or she comes from a great school or well-respected firm; being entrepreneurial is a two-edged sword; think beyond short-term metrics; character counts; and so forth.

But maybe the most important message is a universal one that few will heed. Perhaps inadvertently, one of Bristol’s former partners at Dreyer & Traub, Edward Harris, Jr., summarized it in The American Lawyer article:

“If you’ve got your eyes on the prize, sometimes you might ignore caution signs or something along the way.”

While enjoying the holiday season with family and friends, consider this addendum: Think about whether the prize you eye is the right one.

THE OTHER BIG 10 SCANDAL

Penn State dominates the headlines, but another Big 10 scandal symbolizes what ails legal education and much of the profession. The two situations aren’t morally equivalent, but it’s too bad there isn’t an attention-getting JoePa at the University of Illinois.

On August 26, the university’s ethics office received a tip about a problem with the U of I College of Law’s LSAT and GPA stats. The resulting ABA investigation continues, but the U of I’s November 7 report identifies a rogue villain.

I think it’s more complicated.

The rogue

Shortly after Paul Pless graduated in 2003, his alma mater hired him (at a salary of $38,500/year) as assistant director for admissions and financial aid. (For years, putting unemployed new grads on the temporary payroll for paltry wages has bolstered schools’ U.S. News rankings. Starting next year, they’ll have to disclose it.) Pless stayed on and, by December 2004, was earning $72,000/year as an assistant dean.

Metrics mania

One of the final report’s first section headings is key:

“Institutional Emphasis on USNWR [U.S. News & World Report] Ranking.”

Not until its 2005 annual report did the school — not Pless — explicitly adopt two new goals: increasing the incoming class’s median LSAT from 163 to 165 and its GPA from 3.42 to 3.5. When the median LSAT came in at 166, then-Dean Heidi Hurd sang Pless’s praises:

“Had we been able to report this increase last year, holding all else equal, we would have moved from 26th to 20th in the U.S. News rankings.”

Except the school hadn’t held “all else equal” to get its historic LSAT boost. The median GPA had plummeted to 3.32 and its overall ranking dropped to 27th. In May 2006, a new strategic plan noted that the admissions emphasis on LSATs had left it “with a GPA profile worse than any other top-50 school.” The new goal: raising the incoming class median LSAT/GPA to 168/3.7 by 2011.

In July, Hurd sought a big pay raise for Pless because, she said, he was “in the hiring sights of every dean in America who wants to improve student rankings.” His salary jumped to $98,000. Up to this point, investigators concluded, there had been relatively minor flaws in the data submitted to the ABA and U.S. News.

The heat is on

Two interim deans served from September 2007 through January 2009. But investigators found that a handful of 2008 discrepancies between actual and reported data for the incoming class of 2011 marked the beginning of a “sustained pattern…that increased in practice and scope through the class of 2014.”

In February 2009, Bruce Smith became dean and had to resolve an open question: should the incoming class of 2012’s median LSAT/GPA target be 165/3.8 or 166/3.7? There had been ongoing internal debate over which combination would maximize the school’s overall U.S. News ranking. Smith described his response to the board of visitors:

“I told Paul [Pless] to push the envelope, think outside the box, take some risk, do things differently…Strive for a 166 [LSAT]/3.8 [GPA]….”

The report exonerates Smith from wrongdoing. But footnote 3 observes that his management style “is goal-oriented and intense, and occasionally intimidating, and that it is not inconceivable that certain employees subordinate to him would be uncomfortable bringing bad news to him.”

For the next two years, Pless didn’t.

“I haven’t let a Dean down yet, and I don’t plan on starting with you Boss,” he’d assured Smith in April 2009.

Median LSATs and GPAs showed continuing improvement; Pless’s salary jumped to $130,000 on the strength of Smith’s glowing review. Indeed, Pless’s exploding compensation at a public university in tough financial straits reveals the power of rankings and deans.

On August 22, 2011, Pless touted the class of 2014’s median LSAT (168) and GPA (3.81). By then, the actual numbers were 163 and 3.7.

Who is to blame? The U of I report says Pless and no one else because he made the data entries. I say read it carefully, draw your own conclusions, and ponder the larger picture. The power of U.S. News rankings and other equally misguided metrics comes from people who rely upon them as definitive measures of the things that matter.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars…”

THE ARROGANCE OF OVERCONFIDENCE

Most of us hate admitting our mistakes, especially errors in judgment. Lawyers make lots of judgments, which is why they should pay special attention to two recent and seemingly unrelated NY Times articles.

In the October 23 NYT Magazine, psychologist and economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes an early encounter with his own character flaw that led him to research its universality. Assigned to observe a team-buidling exercise, he was so sure of his predictions about the participants’ future prospects that he disregarded incontrovertible data proving him wrong — again, and again, and again.

In subsequent experiments, he discovered that he wasn’t alone. A similar arrogance of overconfidence explains why, for example, individual investors insist on picking their own stocks year after year, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that their portfolios are worse for it.

In the same Sunday edition of the Times, philosopher Robert P. Crease discusses the two different measurement systems. One relates to traditional notions: how much something weighs or how far a person runs. Representatives from 55 nations met recently to finalize state-of-the-art definitions for basic units of such measurements — the meter, the second, the kilogram, and so forth.

The second system is less susceptible to quantification. Crease notes: “Aristotle…called the truly moral person a ‘measure,’ because our encounters with such a person show us our shortcomings.” Ignoring this second type in favor of numerical assessments gets us into trouble, individually and as a society. Examples include equating intelligence to a single number, such as I.Q. or brain size, or evaluating students (and their teachers) solely by reference to standardized test scores.

Lessons for lawyers — and everyone else

Now consider the intersection of these two phenomena — the arrogance of overconfidence and the reliance on numbers alone to measure value. For example, in recent years, a single metric — partner profits — has come to dominate every internal law firm conversation about attorney worth. Billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios have become the criteria by which most big law leaders judge themselves, fellow partners, their associates, and competitors. They teach to the same test — the one that produces annual Am Law rankings.

The arrogance of overconfidence exacerbates these tendencies. It’s one thing to press onward, as Kahneman concludes most of us do, in the face data proving that we’re moving in the wrong direction. Imagine how bad things can get when a measurement technique appears to validate what are really errors.

I’m not an anarchist. (I offer my advanced degree in economics as modest support.) But the relatively recent notion that there is only one set of law firm measures for defining success — revenues, short-term profits, leverage — has become a plague on our profession. Of course, we’re not alone. According to the Times, during the academic year 2005-2006, one-quarter of the advanced degrees awarded in the United States were MBAs. Business school-type metrics are ubiquitous and, regrettably, often viewed as outcome determinative.

But lawyers know better than to get lost in them, or once upon a time they did. The metrics that most big firm leaders now worship were irrelevant to them as students two or three decades ago. Like today’s undergraduates, they were pursuing a noble calling. Few went to law school seeking a job where their principal missions would be maximizing client billings and this year’s partner profits.

Will the profession’s leaders in the next generation make room for the other kind of measure — the one Aristotle had in mind — that informs the quality of a person’s life, not merely it’s quantitative output? Might they consider the possibility that focusing on short-term metrics imposes long-run costs that aren’t easily measured numerically but are far more profound?

Reviewing the damage that their predecessors’ failures in that regard have inflicted — as measured imprecisely by unsettling levels of career dissatisfaction, substance abuse, depression, and worse — should motivate them to try.

Meanwhile, they’ll have to contend with wealthy senior partners telling them to keep their hours up — a directive that those partners themselves never heard. Good luck to all of us.