A NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN MISFIRES

My unwelcome diagnosis and resulting detour into our dysfunctional medical system diverted my attention from scrutinizing commentators who make dubious assertions about the current state of the legal profession.

Well, I’m back for this one. At first, I thought that Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon’s article in the April 1 edition of the New York Times, “Despite Forecasts of Doom, Signs of Life in the Legal Industry,” was an April Fool’s joke. But the expected punch line at the end of his essay never appeared.

To keep this post a manageable length, here’s a list of points that Solomon got wrong in his enthusiastic account of why the legal industry is on the rise. As a professor of law at Berkeley, he should know better.

  1. “The top global law firms ranked in the annual AmLaw 100 survey experienced a 4.3 percent increase in revenue in 2013 and a 5.4 percent increase in profit.”

That’s true. But it doesn’t support his argument that new law graduates will face a rosy job market. Increased revenue and profits do not translate into increased hiring of new associates. In most big firms, profit increases are the result of headcount reductions at the equity partner level – which have been accelerating for years.

  1. “Bigger firms are hiring.”

Sure, but nowhere near the numbers prior to Great Recession levels. More importantly, big firms comprise only about 15 percent of the profession and hire almost exclusively from the very top law schools. Meanwhile, overall employment in the legal services sector is still tens of thousands of jobs below its 2007 high. Even as recently December 2014, the number of legal services jobs had fallen from the end of 2013.

  1. “Above the Law, a website for lawyers, recently reported a rising trend for lateral moves for lawyers in New York.”

Apples and oranges. The lateral partner hiring market — another big law firm phenomenon that has nothing to do with most lawyers — is completely irrelevant to job prospects for new entry-level law school graduates. Even during the depths of the Great Recession, the former was hot. The latter continues to languish.

  1. “Last year, 93.2 percent of the 645 students of the Georgetown Law class of 2013 were employed.”

That number includes: 83 law school-funded positions, 12 part-time and/or short-term jobs, and 51 jobs not requiring a JD. Georgetown’s full-time, long-term, non-law school-funded JD-required employment rate for 2013 graduates was 72.4 percent – and Georgetown is a top law school. The overall average for all law schools was 56 percent.

  1. “[Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre found that a JD degree] results in a premium of $1 million for lawyers over their lifetime compared with those who did not go to law school.”

Simkovic acknowledges that their calculated median after-tax, after-tuition lifetime JD premium is $330,000. More fundamentally, the flaws in this study are well known to anyone who has followed that debate over the past two years. See, e.g., Matt Leichter’s two-part post beginning at https://lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/economic-value-paper-a-mistrial-at-best/, or the summary of my reservations about the study here: http://thelawyerbubble.com/2013/09/03/once-more-on-the-million-dollar-jd-degree/. Most significantly, it ignores the fact that the market for law school graduates is really two markets — not unitary. Graduates from top schools have far better prospects than others. But the study admittedly takes no account of such differences.

  1. “The American Bar Foundation’s After the JD] study found that as of 2012, lawyers had high levels of job satisfaction and employment as well as high salaries.”

It also found that by 2012, 24 percent of the 3,000 graduates still responding to the study questionnaire are no longer practicing law. The study’s single class of 2013 originally included more than 5,000 — so no one knows what the non-respondents are doing.

“These are the golden age graduates,” said American Bar Foundation faculty fellow Ronit Dinovitzer [one of the study’s authors], “and even among the golden age graduates, 24 percent are not practicing law.”

7.  “Law schools have tremendous survival tendencies. I have a bet with Jordan Weissmann at Slate that not a single law school will close.”

Yes. Those “survival tendencies” are called unlimited federal student loans for which law schools have no accountability with respect to their students employment outcomes. If Solomon wins that bet, it will be because a dysfunctional market keeps alive schools that should have closed long ago.

Whatever happened to the News York Times fact-checker?

BIG LAW — BIG MED — BIG MESS

A month ago, I informed readers that I was taking a break from my ongoing commentary on the legal profession. Instead, I’ve focused my blog on my personal journey through modern medicine after my cancer diagnosis. The American Lawyer, which has republished all of my “Belly of the Beast” blog posts for the past five years, ran the post inaugurating my new series. But I haven’t asked it to republish my eight subsequent medically-oriented posts, which seemed beyond the interests of its primary readership. For reasons that will become evident, I’m inviting republication of this one.

Having spent almost 40 of the past 50 days in the hospital, I’ve had an intimate look at the medical care delivery system from inside one of the nation’s top institutions. I’m now convinced that many big hospitals and law firms share an important characteristic: a lost sense of mission.

This criticism doesn’t apply to most lawyers or to doctors individually. Dedicated, conscientious physicians and attorneys abound. But the devolution of the leading segments of both professions to short-term business-oriented approaches has resulted in structures and constraints within which many of those practitioners must operate. Ultimately, clients, patients, and the workers within those institutions are paying the price.

How Did This Happen?

Not that long ago, doctors ran many hospitals. Today in the United States, only four percent (235 out of more than 6,500 hospitals) are run by physicians. Along the way, the quality of a patient’s experience has suffered.

As the New York Times reported recently, “[N]ew research suggests that having a doctor in charge at the top is connected to overall better patient care and a better hospital.”

“Dr. [Amanda] Goodall [the author of the study] said the finding was consistent with her research in other fields, which has shown, among other things, that research universities perform better when led by outstanding scholars and that basketball teams perform better when led by former top players.”

Dr. Goodall goes on to observe, “M.D. C.E.O.’s are more likely to prioritize patients because patient care is at the heart of their education and working life as a physician. When it comes to making hard budgetary decisions or rationing choices, M.D. C.E.O.’s may be able to make more informed decisions.”

Keeping The MBA-Mentality In Check

I’m not an anarchist. I have a master’s degree in economics and understand the importance of data-drivien decisions. But I also appreciate the limitations of statistics and the dangers of a myopic MBA-type approach to management. There is nothing wrong with using accounting and business methods in the process running complex organizations, including big hospitals and law firms. But when those methods dominate institutional culture — setting the tone from the top of a hospital or law firm — those organizations no longer exist to serve people. Instead, they develop a new purpose: to serve the short-term bottom line.

As Dr. Goodall suggests, ““I think the pendulum may have swung too far in the favor of managers. This is partially because business schools have become so prominent, as has the M.B.A. These qualifications are helpful, but it is possibly not enough just to have a management education.”

Lawyers still run most big law firms, but the trends toward non-attorney CEOs and non-attorney managers developing increasing power and influence within big firms is well underway. More pointedly, many lawyers in big firms have obtained MBAs and are increasingly relying on their newly-learned “management tools” to run their firms. That can be okay, provided they do not become too fond of their “MBA-hats” and lose sight of their more important JD mission — to serve clients. It’s easier said than done because maximizing short-term partner profits is how such leaders — and their partners — measure successful leadership.

Back To Basics

Most undergraduates go to law school because they want to do good. That message has emerged loudly and clearly from my prelaw students over the nine years that I’ve taught undergraduates at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences and over the more than 20 years that I’ve taught trial practice and legal ethics courses at the Law School. A similar impulse drives most people into the medical profession. Just as every lawyer’s mission should be to serve clients, medical care should be about a single-minded mission: patient care.

The dominant big law firm model has evolved away from helping clients and toward maximizing a firm’s short-term profits through a handful of definitive metrics — billable hours, hourly rates, equity partner leverage. Likewise, big medicine — if I can call it that — has succumbed to similar pressures — maximizing relative value units (medicine’s equivalent to the billable hour metric), minimizing costs, and squeezing workers in an effort to improve “productivity,” to name a few.

Similarly, a dominant and incorrect perception in both professions is that bigger is always better. The number of law firm mergers sets a new record every year. Hospital merger and acquisition activity is ubiquitous.

Lost Along The Way

Bigger isn’t better. As with law firms, increasing the size of hospitals works against efforts to create a sense of community, collegiality, and shared mission. Likewise, cost-saving isn’t appropriate when non-medical CEOs with MBAs introduce efficiency measures that ignore the potentially adverse impact on patients.

For more than two weeks, I’ve lived through situations that illustrate my point. For example, I don’t know the metric by which administrators set what they regard as appropriate staffing levels. But one nurse told me that some floors are regarded as “heavy” — meaning that patients have conditions that can require a lot of attention. That translates into greater demands on a nurse’s time. But if there aren’t enough nurses to handle the workload, the burden falls on those who are around. Transferring to a different floor or facility becomes an escape route. It would be interesting to study the nurse “attrition rate” from the “heavy” floors.

Law And Medicine

In the prevailing big law firm model, overworking people — attorneys and staff — maximizes revenues while controlling costs. One consequence is a five-year associate attrition rate for big law firms averaging 80 percent. In other words, for every 100 associates who begin their careers at a large firm, only 20 will still be working there five years later. Other consequences are more difficult to measure so they get ignored: the decline in worker morale and the lost productivity that results.

Do extraordinary associate turnover rates serve client interests? No. Do they foster a climate in which a shared mission of client service becomes the institution’s dominant ethic? No. Do they reflect short-term profit-maximization goals that are completely inappropriate for a profession that should regard itself as better than that? You bet.

Other instances from my medical experience seem equally divorced from what should be a central focus on the patient. They may seem trivial, and none is life-threatening. But collectively they reveal something about institutional focus.

For example, a patient may require periodic blood draws, but the doctors defer the timing of those draws to whenever the phlebotomists are “doing everyone else on the floor.” That might be efficient, but on my floor, that designated time is 4:00 am. Why does efficiency in the use of phlebotomists trump the patient’s need for sleep?

Here’s another: At 11:00 pm, when all of the lights in my room were out and I’d just fallen asleep, someone came in and emptied all of the trash cans. The following morning, I asked the nurse, “Who decided that 11:00 pm was a good time to go around waking people up to empty their trash?”

“That’s just when they come around,” she answered.

These and many other dictates from above govern behavior throughout the hospital. Where does the patient fit in the process of pursuing worker efficiency? At least when it comes to blood draws and trash removal, nowhere, it would seem.

Shakespeare Updated

Scholars still debate the meaning of Dick the Butcher’s line in Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Were the Bard’s words — speaking through that anarchist — backhanded praise acknowledging attorneys as the source of law and order? Or was he going for the laugh that the play evidently received from contemporaneous audiences that had become weary — as Shakespeare himself had — of the misery that litigious lawyers could inflict on a person’s life?

Regardless of that controversy, I hereby invite debate on a new version of that line. I’ve adapted it to today’s medical and legal worlds: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the MBAs in big law and big med — so doctors and lawyers can recapture their professions.”

Actually, we don’t have to kill the MBAs. We just have to keep them in their proper place.

ASIA: ONE FIRM GOES BIG WHILE ANOTHER GOES HOME

The contrasting headlines are striking. Two days after Fried Frank announced that it was pulling out of Asia, Dentons revealed that its partners had voted to jump in — big time. A week later, a ceremony that looked like a treaty-signing marked the combination of Dentons with Asia’s largest law firm, Dacheng Law Offices. The result is now a 6,600-lawyer behemoth.

A Big Bet

Dacheng and Dentons share some things in common. Both firms are themselves products of rapid inorganic growth. Dacheng was founded in 1992. Its website now boasts more than 4,000 lawyers worldwide.

Dentons resulted from transactions that combined four law firms — Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, Denton Wilde Sapte (UK), Salans (France), and Fraser Milner Casgrain (Canada) — into an organizational form known as a Swiss verein. Each firm maintains its own profit pool but shares strategy, branding, IT and other core functions. According to its website at the time of the Dacheng deal, 2,600 lawyers carried the “Dentons” brand.

But a brand is not a business, and any brand is only as good as its underlying product. Law firms have a single product to sell: the talent of their personnel. The most important challenge that comes with inorganic growth is maintaining consistent quality. In that regard and perhaps more than any other business, law firms have precious little margin for error.

In responding to anticipated questions on that subject, Dentons global CEO Elliott Portnoy framed the issue, but never really responded to it: “We know our competition will suggest that this dilutes profitability and will raise questions about quality control. But the simple truth is that we’re going to be able to generate more revenue, increase our profitability and position ourselves as a truly multicultural firm.”

The Big Question

Apart from failing to address the quality question, sound bites about multiculturalism don’t answer a central question: What will the culture of the combined organization become?

The practical differences between Dentons and Dacheng are enormous. According to The American Lawyer, average revenue per Dacheng lawyer is $78,000. In the October 2014 America  Lawyer Global 100 listing, Dentons’ RPL was $505,000. Even with separate revenue and profits pools, integrating these two giants will still be something to behold.

For example, the leadership structure of the new entity reads like the fine print on securities filing. The American Lawyer reports:

“The combined firm will also have a Chinese chair, and none of the five vereins will have a majority of board seats. Any single verein can also block a policy it doesn’t agree with. In the combined firm, the global board will be increased from 15 to 19, with five seats for the Chinese verein and the same number for the U.S. verein. Andrew says the future number of Chinese seats will be adjusted according to the verein’s revenue growth. The chair of the global board, which includes all five vereins, will be Peng; Portnoy will remain the firm’s global CEO, and Andrew will continue to be the firm’s outward face as global chair of the combined firm.”

The Big Risk

The principal question that any leader embarking on a merger of equals should ask is: What happens if it fails? Among other things, leadership requires risk management. Anticipating worst-case scenarios might lead to decisions that outsiders view as too conservative. But the downside consequence of failing to consider those scenarios can be fatal. Just ask the former partners of Dewey & LeBoeuf.

In that respect, the nearly simultaneous decision of Fried Frank to exit Asia after a nearly decade-long effort to gain traction there is interesting. That firm’s China entry began in 2006 with lateral hires from Hong Kong. A year later, it opened an office in Shanghai. But it began deliberating the fate of its Asia presence in 2009 before reaching its recent decision to leave.

According to firm chairman David Greenwald “discipline and good business judgment” led the firm to close its China offices. He deserves credit for a tough decision and forceful action. Calling the time of death on any failed effort is never easy.

In commenting to the American Lawyer about Fried Frank’s departure, law firm consultant Peter Zeughauser said, ““Nobody wants to admit defeat, but Fried Frank might be the canary in the mineshaft. China has always been a hard market, and with the local firms getting much stronger and starting to capture the lion’s share, it’s not getting any easier. Some firms will view it as a necessary investment for the future, but for others, it’s just not worth it.”

Different Approaches; Different Outcomes?

Published reports suggest that Fried Frank initially went into China hoping to capitalize on its existing relationships with U.S. clients — including Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. Dentons appears to have a dramatically different strategy: joining forces with the largest of the China-based firms that Zeughauser identified as getting stronger.

Whatever else happens, the leaders of Dacheng-Dentons can say that they once presided over the largest ever lawyer branding experiment. Especially for Dentons, it involves a big bet. For the sake of everyone involved, let’s hope it’s on the right horse.

2015: THE YEAR THAT THE LAW SCHOOL CRISIS ENDED (OR NOT) — CONCLUSION

My prior two installments in this series predicted that in 2015 many deans and law professors would declare the crisis in legal education over. In particular, two changes that have nothing to do with the actual demand for lawyers — one from the ABA and one from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — could fuel false optimism about the job environment for new law graduates.

Realistic projections about the future should start with a clear-eyed vision of the present. To assist in that endeavor, the Georgetown Law Center for the Study of the Legal Profession and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor recently released their always useful annual “Report on the State of the Legal Market.”

The Importance of the Report

The Report does not reach every segment of the profession. For example, government lawyers, legal aid societies, in-house legal staffs, and sole practitioners are among several groups that the Georgetown/Peer Monitor survey does not include. But it samples a sufficiently broad range of firms to capture important overall trends. In particular, it compiles results from 149 law firms, including 51 from the Am Law 100, 46 from the Am Law 2nd 100, and 52 others. It includes Big Law, but it also includes a slice of not-so-big law.

The principal audience for the Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report is law firm leaders. The Report’s advice is sound and, to my regular readers, familiar. Rethink business models away from reliance on internally destructive short-term metrics (billable hours, fee growth, leverage). Focus on the client’s return on investment rather than the law firm’s. Don’t expect a reprise of equity partner profit increases that occurred from 2004 through 2007 (cumulative rate of 25.6 percent). Beware of disrupters threatening the market power that many firms have enjoyed over some legal services.

For years, law firm leaders have heard these and similar cautions. For years, most leaders have been ignoring them. For example, last year at this time, the Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report urged law firm leaders to shun a “growth for growth’s sake” strategy. Given the frenzy of big firm merger and lateral partner acquisition activity that dominated 2014, that message fell on deaf ears.

The Demand for Lawyers

The 2015 Report’s analysis of business demand for law firm services is relevant to any new law graduate seeking to enter that job market. Some law schools might prefer the magical thought that aggregate population studies (or dubious changes in BLS methodology projecting future lawyer employment) should assure all graduates from all law schools of a rewarding JD-required career. But that’s a big mistake for the schools and their students.

For legal jobs that are still the most difficult to obtain — employment in law firms — the news is sobering. While demand growth for the year ending in November 2014 was “a clear improvement over last year (when demand growth was negative), it does not represent a significant improvement in the overall pattern for the past five years.”

In other words, the economy has recovered, but the law firm job market remains challenging. “Indeed,” the Report continues, “since the collapse in demand in 2009 (when growth hit a negative 5.1 percent level), demand growth in the market has remained essentially flat to slightly negative.”

Past As Prologue?

The Report notes that business spending on legal services from 2004 to 2014 grew from about $159.4 billion to $168.7 billion — “a modest improvement over a ten-year period. But if expressed in inflation-adjusted dollars, the same spending fell from $159.4 to $118.3 billion, a precipitous drop of 25.8 percent.”

What does that mean for future law graduates? The Report resists taking sides in the ongoing debate over whether the demand for law firm services generally will rebound to anything approaching pre-recession levels. It doesn’t have to because, the Report concludes, “it is increasingly clear that the buying habits of business clients have shifted in a couple of significant ways that have adversely impacted the demand for law firm services.”

One of the two shifts that the Report identifies doesn’t necessarily mean less employment for lawyers generally. Specifically, companies are moving work from outside counsel to in-house legal staffs. That should not produce a net reduction in lawyer jobs, unless in-house lawyers become more productive than their outside law firm counterparts.

The second trend is bad news for law graduates: “[T]here has also been a clear — though still somewhat modest — shift of work by business clients to non-law firm vendors.” In 2012, non-law firm vendors accounted for 3.9 percent of legal department budgets; it grew to 7.1 percent in 2014.

Beware of Optimistic Projections

The Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report is a reminder that the recent past can provide important clues about what lies ahead. For lawyers seeking to work in firms serving corporate clients, it sure doesn’t look like a lawyer shortage is imminent.

So what will be the real-life source of added demand sufficient to create market equilibrium, much less a true lawyer shortage? Anyone predicting such a surge has an obligation to answer that question. As the Report suggests, general claims about population growth or the “ebb and flow” of the business cycle won’t cut it. Along with the rest of the economy, the profession has suffered through the 2008-2009 “ebb.” The economy has returned to “flow” — but the overall demand for lawyers hasn’t.

Here are two more suggestions for those predicting a big upswing from recent trends in the demand for attorneys. Limit yourselves to the segment of the population that can actually afford to hire a lawyer and is likely to do so. Then take a close look at individual law school employment results to identify the graduates whom clients actually want to hire.

THE BINGHAM CASE STUDY: PART II

Starting with the introduction, Harvard Law Professor Ashish Nanda’s case study on Bingham McCutchen depicts Jay Zimmerman as the architect of the firm’s evolution “from a ‘middle-of-the-road-downtown-pack’ Boston law firm in the early 1990s to a preeminent international law firm by 2010″:

“Zimmerman was elected chairman in 1994. Over the next 15 years, he shepherded the firm through 10 mergers, or ‘combinations’ in the Bingham lexicon, the establishment of 11 new offices, and a ten-fold increase in the firm’s revenues to $800 million… Given its impressive expansion, [journalist Jeffrey] Klineman said, ‘Bingham McCutchen has shown it could probably open an office on the moon.'” (p. 1)

Harvard published the study in September 2011.

Another Case Study

Ten months later, Nanda released another case study, “The Demise of Howrey” — a firm that was dying as he considered Bingham. Interestingly, several footnotes in the Howrey study refer to articles explaining how aggressive inorganic growth compromised that firm’s cohesiveness and hastened its collapse. (E.g., “Howrey’s Lessons” by me, ““Why Howrey Law Firm Could Not Hold It Together”, by the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein, and “The Fall of Howrey,” by the American Lawyer’s Julie Triedman) But Nanda’s 15-page narrative of Howrey barely mentions that topic.

Instead, he invites consideration of “the alternative paths Howrey, and managing partner Robert Ruyak, might have taken to avoid dissolution of the firm” after that growth had occurred. The abstract concludes with these suggested discussion points:

“What could Howrey have done differently as clients demanded contingency payment plans and deep discounts? Should Ruyak have been more transparent about the financial difficulties the firm faced? Should he have consulted with a group of senior partners instead of relying on the counsel of outside consultants? Is a litigation-focused firm at a disadvantage when it comes to leadership, as compared to a corporate practice? Participants will reflect on the leadership structure of Howrey while discussing issues related to crisis management.”

With all due respect, those inquiries don’t reach a key lesson of Howrey’s (and now Bingham’s) collapse. The following sentence in the study does, but it goes unexplored:

“Howrey continued to add laterals over the concerns of some partners that increased lateral expansion might detract from the firm’s strategic focus and weaken its cultural glue.” (p. 6)

The Metrics Trap

Nanda’s case studies report that at Howrey. as at Bingham, a few key metrics suggested short-term success: revenues soared, equity partner profits increased, and Am Law rankings went up. But beneath those superficially appealing trends was a long-term danger that such metrics didn’t capture: institutional instability. When Howrey’s projected average partner profits dipped to $850,000 in 2009, many ran for the exits and the death spiral accelerated.

Likewise, Bingham’s record high equity partner profits in 2012 of $1.7 million dropped by 13 percent — far less than Howrey’s 2009 decline of 35 percent — to $1.5 million in 2013. But a steady stream of partner departures led to destabilization and a speedy end.

Balancing the Presentation

According to the final sentence of the Bingham case study abstract, “The case allows participants to explore the positives and negatives of following a strategy of inorganic growth in professional service firms….”

The negatives now dwarf the positives. No one should fault Nanda for failing to predict Bingham’s collapse two years later. The most spectacular law firm failures have come as surprises, even to many insiders at such firms. But the Bingham study emphasizes how Zimmerman conquered the challenges of an aggressive growth strategy, with little consideration to whether the overall strategy itself was wise over the long run.

For example:

— The study notes that after Bingham’s 2002 merger with 300-attorney McCutchen Doyle, “Cultural differences…loomed over the combined organization….” But the study goes on to observe, “[T]hese issues did not slow the firm’s growth on the West Coast.” (p. 11) By 2006, “Bingham had achieved remarkable success and unprecedented growth.” (p. 14)

— The study reports that the firm’s American Lawyer associate satisfaction ranking improved from 107 in 2007 to 79 in 2008, which Bingham’s chief human resources officer attributed to “an appreciation for the leadership of the firm. People have confidence in Jay’s competence.” (p. 17). The study doesn’t mention that the firm’s associate satisfaction ranking dropped to 100 in 2009 and to 106 (out of 137) in 2010. (American Lawyer, Sept. 2010, p. 78)

— “Our management committee has people from all over,” the study quotes Zimmerman. “You don’t have to have been at Bingham Dana forever to lead at the firm.” (p. 15) But the study doesn’t consider how too many laterals parachuting into the top of a firm can produce a concentration of power and a problematic distribution of partner compensation. When Bingham began to unravel, the spread between its highest and lowest paid partners was 12:1.

— Bingham’s final acquisition — McKee Nelson — was the largest law firm combination of 2009. The study doesn’t discuss the destructive impact of accompanying multi-year compensation guarantees that put some McKee Nelson partners at the very top of the Bingham McCutchen pay scale. To be fair, Nanda probably didn’t know about the guarantees, but the omission reveals the limitations of his investigation. The guarantees came to light publicly when the American Lawyer spoke recently with former partners who said that “the size and scope of the McKee Nelson guarantees led to internal fissures…that caused at least some partners to leave the firm.”

No Regrets

Looking to the future, Zimmerman told the Harvard researchers, “[W]e’re competing with the best every day. We know we are among the best.” (p. 19)

I wonder if he would now offer the same self-assessment of his leadership that Robert Ruyak provided to the American Lawyer at the time of Howrey’s bankruptcy, namely, “I don’t have any regrets.” Nanda’s case study on Howrey’s demise concludes with “Ruyak’s Reflections.” The “no regrets” line could lead to interesting classroom discussions about accepting responsibility, but it doesn’t appear in the Howrey study. Ruyak’s explanations for the firm’s failure do.

One explanation that receives no serious attention in the case study is Ruyak’s observation that the partnership lacked patience and loyalty to the firm: “The longer-term Howrey people realized that our profitability jumped around a bit,” he said. “The people who were laterals, maybe, did not.” (p. 15)

Perhaps the potential for institutional instability that can accompany aggressive inorganic law firm growth receives greater emphasis in classroom discussions of Howrey and Bingham than it does in Nanda’s written materials. In that respect, both firms are case studies in management failure that is regrettably pervasive: a wrongheaded vision of success and a reliance on misguided metrics by which to measure it.

THE BINGHAM CASE STUDY — PART I

“For the first time since I’ve been in this job, we have all the pieces we need to do our job.”

That was former Bingham McCutchen chairman Jay Zimmerman’s penultimate line in the September 2011 Harvard Law School Case Study of his firm.

Oops.

Harvard Law School Professor Ashish Nanda and a research fellow developed the study for classroom use. According to the abstract, it’s a textbook example of successful management. It demonstrates how a firm could evolve “from a ‘middle-of-the-downtown pack’ Boston law firm in the early 1990s to a preeminent international law firm by 2010.”

Oops, again.

Familiar Plaudits

At the time of Nanda’s study, the profession had already witnessed a string of recent big firm failures. He should have taken a closer look at them. In fact, only seven months before publication of the Harvard Study, Howrey LLP was in the highly publicized death throes of what was a preview Bingham’s unfortunate fate.

Bingham’s Zimmerman and Howrey’s last chairman, Robert Ruyak, had several things in common, including accolades for their leadership. Just as Nanda highlighted Zimmerman’s tenure in his study, two years before Howrey’s collapse, Legal Times honored Ruyak as one of the profession’s Visionaries. Along similar lines, less than a month after publication of the Harvard study, Dewey & LeBeouf’s unraveling began as partners learned in October 2011 that the firm was not meeting its revenue projections for the year. But Dewey chairman Steven Davis continued to receive leadership awards.

Perhaps such public acclaim for a senior partner is the big firm equivalent of the Sports Illustrated curse. Being on the cover of that magazine seems to assure disaster down the road. (According to one analyst, the SI curse isn’t the worst in sports history. That distinction belongs to the Chicago Cubs and the Billy Goat hex. But hey, anyone can have a bad century.)

Underlying Behavior

The Lawyer Bubble investigates Howrey, Dewey, and other recent failures of large law firms. The purpose is not to identify what distinguishes them from each other, but to expose common themes that contributed to their demise. With the next printing of the book, I’m going to add an afterword that includes Bingham.

If Nanda had considered those larger themes, he might have viewed Bingham’s evolution much differently from the conclusions set forth in his study. He certainly would have backed away from what he thought was the key development proving Bingham’s success, namely, aggressive growth through law firm mergers and lateral hiring. He might even have considered that such a strategy could contribute to Bingham’s subsequent failure — which it did.

To find those recent precedents, he need not have looked very far. Similar trends undermined Howrey, Dewey, and others dating back to Finley Kumble in 1988. As a profession, we don’t seem to learn much from our mistakes.

The MBA Mentality Strikes Again

What caused Professor Nanda to line up with those who had missed the fault lines that had undone similar firms embracing the “bigger is always better” approach? One answer could be that he’s not a lawyer.

Nanda has a Ph.D in economics from Harvard Business School, where he taught for 13 years before becoming a professor of practice, faculty director of executive education, and research director at the program on the legal profession at Harvard Law School. Before getting his doctorate, he spent five years at the Tata group of companies as an administrative services officer. He co-authored a case book on “Professional Services” and advises law firms and corporate inside counsel.

It’s obvious that Nanda is intelligent. But it seems equally clear that his business orientation focused him on the enticing short-term metrics that have become ubiquitous measures of success. They can also be traps for the unwary.

In Part II of this series, I’ll review some of those traps. Nanda fell into them. As a consequence, he missed clues that should have led him to pause before joining the Bingham cheerleading squad.

Meanwhile, through December 6, Amazon is offering a special deal on my novel, The Partnership: It’s FREE as an ebook download. I’m currently negotiating a sale of the film rights to the book.

A MYTH THAT MOTIVATES MERGERS

In a recent interview with The American Lawyer, the chairman of Edwards Wildman, Alan Levin, explained the process that led his firm to combine with Locke Lord. It began with a commissioned study that separated potential merger partners into “tier 1” and “tier 2” firms. The goal was to get bigger.

“Size matters,” he said, “and to be successful today, you really have to be in that Am Law 50.”

When lawyers deal with clients and courts, they focus on evidence. Somehow, that tendency often disappears when they’re evaluating the strategic direction of their own institutions.

Bigger Is…?

There’s no empirical support for the proposition that economies of scale accompany the growth of a law firm. Back in 2003, Altman Weil concluded that 30 years of survey research proved it: “Larger firms almost always spend more per lawyer on staffing, occupancy, equipment, promotion, malpractice and other non-personnel insurance coverages, office supplies and other expenses than do smaller firms.” As firms get bigger, the Altman Weil report continued, maintaining the infrastructure to support continued growth becomes more expensive.

Since 2003, law firms have utilized even more costly ways to grow: multi-year compensation guarantees to overpaid lateral partners. Recently, Ed Newberry, chairman of Patton Boggs, told Forbes, “[L]ateral acquisitions, which many firms are aggressively pursuing now…is a very dangerous strategy because laterals are extremely expensive and have a very low success rate — by some studies lower than 50 percent across firms.”

The Magic of the Am Law 50?

Does success require a place in the Am Law 50? If size is the only measuring stick, then the tautology holds. Big = successful = big. But if something else counts, such as profitability or stability, then the answer is no.

The varied financial performance of firms within the Am Law 50 disproves the “bigger is always better” hypothesis. The profit margins of those firms range from a high of 62 percent (Gibson Dunn) to a low of 14 percent (Squire Sanders — which is in the process of merging with Patton Boggs).

Wachtell has the highest profit margin in the Am Law 100 (64 percent), and it’s not even in the Am Law 50. But that firm’s equity partners aren’t complaining about its 2013 average profits per partner: $4.7 million — good enough for first place on the PPP list. Among the 50 largest firms in gross revenues, 17 have profit margins placing them in the bottom half of the Am Law 100.

Buzzwords Without Meaning

A cottage industry of law firm management consultants has developed special language to reinforce a mindless “size matters” mentality. According to The Legal Intelligencer, Kent Zimmermann of the Zeughauser Group said recently that Morgan Lewis’s contemplated merger with Bingham McCutchen “may be part of a growing crop of law firms that feel they need to be ‘materially larger’ in order to increase brand awareness, [which is] viewed by many of these firms as what it takes to get on the short list for big matters.”

Not so fast. In the Am Law rankings, Morgan Lewis is already 12th in gross revenues and 24th in profit margin (44 percent). It doesn’t need to “increase brand awareness.” That concept might help sell toothpaste; it doesn’t describe the way corporate clients actually select their outside lawyers.

In a recent article, Casey Sullivan and David Ingram at Reuters suggest that Bingham’s twelve-year effort to increase “brand awareness” through an aggressive program of mergers contributed mightily to its current plight. The authors observe that In the early 1990s “[c]onsultants were warning leaders of mid-sized firms that their partnerships would have to merge or die, and [Bingham’s chairman] proved to be a pioneer of the strategy.”

Consultants have given big firms plenty of other bad advice, but that’s a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that Bingham’s subsequent mergers got it into the Am Law 50. However, that didn’t protect the firm from double-digit declines in 2013 revenue and profits, or from a plethora of partner departures in 2014.

In his Legal Intelligencer interview, Kent Zimmermann of Zeughauser also said that he has “seen firms with new leadership in place look to undertake a transformative endeavor like this [Morgan Lewis-Bingham] merger would be.” If Zimmermann’s overall observation about firms with new leadership is true, such leaders should be asking themselves: transform to what? Acting on empty buzzwords risks a “transformative endeavor” to institutional instability.

Soundbites

In contrast to Alan Levin’s “size matters” sound bite, here’s another. A year ago, IBM’s general counsel, Robert Weber, told the Wall Street Journal“I’m pretty skeptical about the value these big mergers give to clients…I don’t know why it’s better to use a bigger firm.”

Weber should know because he spent 30 years at Jones Day before joining IBM. But is anyone listening? IBM’s long-time outside counsel Cravath, Swaine & Moore probably is. Based on size and gross revenues, Cravath doesn’t qualify for the Am Law 50, but its clients and partners don’t care.

Uncertain Outcomes

Does becoming a legal behemoth add client value? Does it increase institutional nimbleness in a changing environment? Does it enhance morale, collegiality, and long-run firm stability? Do profit margins improve or worsen? Why are many big firm corporate clients — H-P, eBay, Abbott Labs, ConocoPhilllips, Time Warner, DuPont, and Procter & Gamble, among a long list — moving in the opposite direction, namely, toward disaggregation that increases flexibility?

Wearing their “size alone matters” blinders, some firm leaders aren’t even asking those questions. If they don’t, fellow partners should. After all, their skin is in this game, too.