A DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

The Wall Street Journal’s front page headline tells only part of story: “Legal Fees Cross New Mark: $1500.” The February 9 article lists the range of partner hourly rates at some big firms: Proskauer Rose from $925 to $1475; Ropes & Gray from $895 to $1450; Kirkland & Ellis from $875 to $1445; and so on and so on and so on.

That’s great if you can get it, but most firms can’t. The 2016 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor “State of the Legal Profession” tells a second part of the story: realization and collection rates have plummeted. How much a firm bills doesn’t matter; what it actually brings in the door does. In 2005, collections totaled 93 percent of standard rates. By the end of 2015, it was down to 83 percent.

The Music Stopped, Almost

Annual standard hourly rate increases have blunted the profit impact of declining collections, but trees stopped growing to the sky about ten years ago. Except in bankruptcy courts. That’s the third element of the story and the profession’s dirty little secret: one of the most lucrative big law practice areas has no client accountability for its fees. Even worse, the process facilitates pricing behavior that spills over into other practice areas.

Take the recent Journal article. Where did the reporters get the detailed hourly rates for the firms it identified? A note at the bottom of the chart reveals the answer: “Source: Bankruptcy court filings.” If managing partners exchanged their firms’ hourly rates privately, it would raise serious antitrust issues. But in bankruptcy, publicly filed fee petitions do all of that work for them.

It gets worse. In bankruptcy, no one forces attorneys into the discounting that produces the current 83 percent overall average collections rate. Remember the infamous “Churn that bill, baby” email involving DLA Piper a few years ago? That was a bankruptcy case. Traditional mechanisms of accountability are ineffective. Unlike a solvent corporate client, a company in trouble has little leverage in dealing with its outside counsel. Until it emerges from a Chapter 11 reorganization, the days of minimizing legal expenses to maximize shareholder value are suspended. If it winds up in Chapter 7 liquidation, those days are gone forever.

At the same, time, the lawyers handling the bankruptcy have little risk. They get paid ahead of everyone else. Lawyers for creditor committees are a theoretical check only. They, too, get paid first and the members of the exclusive club of big law firm attorneys reappear. Their roles may change — debtor’s counsel in one bankruptcy may be creditors’ attorney in another and the liquidating trustee’s lawyer in yet another. In none of those capacities is there any incentive to rock the long-term, “paid-in-full hourly rate” boat.

More Theoretical Accountability

The U.S. Trustee receives all attorneys’ fees petitions before courts approve them. The Trustee can object, but it doesn’t have sufficient resources to analyze detailed line item time and expense entries on the thousands of pages that firms submit. The Trustee issued new guidelines that became effective for cases filed after November 1, 2013. Perhaps they will make a difference. But in the end, they are still guidelines and the final decision on attorneys fees resides with the bankruptcy judge.

As hourly rates have increased to the $1500 level that the Journal highlights, courts have given their rubber stamps of approval to the trend. Rather than challenge the high rates that all firms charge, bankruptcy judges determine merely that they are “reasonable and customary” because, after all, comparable firms are charging them for comparable work. The circularity is as obvious as the resulting payday for the lawyers. Someday, media attention and popular outrage may force meaningful change that has yet to occur.

Worse Than It Seems

Considering the 83 percent collection rate in the context of the nearly 100 percent rate for bankruptcy lawyers yields an insight relevant to the fourth and final part of the larger big law firm story. In particular, the current 83 percent collection rate is deceptively high. If a firm’s average is 83 percent and its bankruptcy lawyers collect close to 100 percent, then firms with large bankruptcy practices have non-bankruptcy clients pushing some practice areas into deep concessions off standard rates.

Likewise, combining this fact with two conclusions from the Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report produces ominous implications for such firms:

— “Demand for law firm services…was essentially flat in 2015,” and

— Bankruptcy experienced the largest negative growth rate in demand by practice area.

Unless the country heads into a recession that few economists expect, the continuing reduction in bankruptcies will drive overall average collections dramatically lower. That’s bad news for big law firms with significant bankruptcy practices.

Back in 2011, an icon of the bankruptcy bar, the late Harvey Miller of Weil, Gotshal and Manges, defended his firm’s approach to legal fees: “The underlying principle is, if you can get it, get it.”

Miller isn’t around anymore, but his unfortunate credo for a noble profession survives — for now.

[NOTE: The trade paperback edition of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books) — complete with an extensive new AFTERWORD — will be released on March 8, 2016 and is now available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.]

A FIRM TO WATCH

Something worth watching could be happening at King & Wood Mallesons, one of the world’s largest law firms. It has an interesting history, a challenging present and, perhaps, an even more challenging future.

Past

Beijing-based King & Wood came into existence in 1993. If you look for photos or other information about either name partner, you won’t find them. Neither person ever existed. China doesn’t have U.S.-type ethics rules requiring that law firms carry the names of lawyers who work there (or did before retirement or death). The distinctly non-Chinese names are a branding exercise aimed at reaching a global audience.

In 2012, King & Wood merged with Australian-based Mallesons Stephen Jacques. In 2013, it added London-based SJ Berwin and now has 2,700 lawyers scattered across 30 offices around the world. It operates as a verein, meaning that the constituent firms are legally separate and don’t share profits. (Whether any verein is a real law firm is a subject for another day.)

Present

In July 2015, King & Wood Malleson’s Europe and the Middle East announced “rocketing” results.  Profits per equity partner had soared by 39 percent. During the year, the firm hired 15 lateral partners, including attorneys from Fried Frank, Linklaters, and Eversheds.

As London-based (and newly named) managing partner William Boss boasted, “This is an exciting time for our region….”

Maybe a bit too exciting, even for Boss.

Two days later, The Lawyer offered a potentially relevant footnote to the “rocketing” 39 percent jump in partner profits reported only two days earlier: “A number of insiders have questioned the large jump in PEP, attributing the growth to an exceptionally big and anomalous recovery for the firm on one piece of litigation.”

At about the same time, the firm revealed that it had completed its “partnership review” resulting in an almost 10 percent reduction in its London office equity ranks, according to The Lawyer. In addition, the firm lost some “big hitters.”

On January 15, 2016, William Boss resigned as managing partner — more than a year before his term was set to expire in May 2017. The firm said that he would remain in the position until April while the search for his replacement occurred.

Future

On January 20, The Lawyer reported that the firm had “launched a review of its capital contributions structure in order to ease cashflow, stop repeated delays to profit distributions and stem the flow of exits by ‘frustrated’ partners.”

What does that mean? Time will tell. But story in The Lawyer included these nuggets:

— “A number of sources close to KWM have accused the firm of withholding profit distributions over the last five years in order to keep up with tax bills, leading to a raft of senior exits last year.”

— “One source close to KWM said the firm had ‘only just’ paid out the full distributions due in August 2015, having previously paid just half the money owed in that quarter. Another said they had only been paid 25 per cent of their distributions for 2014/15, despite it being nine months into the financial year.”

— “Complaints about delayed profit payments follow a good year financially for the firm in the UK, Europe and Middle East, adding to the frustration of a number of partners, a source said. ‘It’s been a so-called record year for the firm but partners just aren’t getting paid,’ they added.”

— “The review could see its UK partners being asked to pay higher contributions to the firm in return for more units in the LLP.”

If the last item comes to pass, partners who write checks to the firm might want to understand exactly what they are buying and why.

BIG LAW’S SHORT-TERMISM PROBLEM

Recently, the New York Times devoted a special section of “Dealbook” to short-termism. Big law firms made a prominent appearance in an article focusing on leadership transition. Citing statistics at the managing partner level, the Times reports that only three percent of law firm managing partners are under age 50. Twelve percent are over 70. Almost half are between 60 and 70.

The Tip of the Graying Iceberg

The core problem of transition runs deeper than a single demographic data point about the age of those at the top of the big law pyramid. The developing crisis goes far beyond the question of who the next managing partner will be.

At most firms, aging partners at all partnership levels are hanging on to clients and billings. For them, it’s a matter of survival. Except for lock-step firms, equity partners “eat what they kill” — that is, their closely guarded silos of clients and billings determine their annual compensation.

In that culture, hoarding becomes essential to preserving annual compensation that partners come to regard as rightfully theirs — and theirs alone. Stated in language that many senior partners use in criticizing today’s young attorneys, these aging lawyers have developed a wrong-headed sense of entitlement.

The fact that they’re making far more than they dreamed of earning in law school doesn’t matter to them. Neither does the fact that they are compromising the future of their firms. But their short-term gains could become the institution’s long run catastrophe.

See the Problem

Surveys confirm that law firm leaders recognize the resulting problem. Seven years ago, Altman Weil issued the first of its annual “Law Firms in Transition” series. Since then, the survey has documented a fundamental failure of leadership on this issue.

For example, in the 2011 survey, Altman Weil asked firm leaders to name the areas in which they had the greatest concerns about their firms’ preparedness for change: “The top issue, identified by 47% of all firms, was the retirement and succession of Baby Boom lawyers in their law firms.”

In the 2012 survey, 70 percent of managing partners had “moderate” or “high” concern about client transition as senior partners retire. On a scale of one (no concern) to ten (extreme concern), the median score was seven.

In the 2013 survey, only 27 percent of managing partners reported that they had a formal succession planning process in place.

Ignore the Problem

How have these leaders responded to what they have identified for years as the most pressing long-term problem facing their firms? Poorly.

The 2015 survey observes, “In 63% of law firms, partners aged 60 or older control at least one quarter of total firm revenue, but only 31% of law firms have a formal succession planning process.”

There’s a reason that law firm leaders balk at meaningful transition planning. It requires them to accept the fact that they won’t run their firms forever. But contemplating one’s own mortality can be unpleasant.

It also requires them to rethink their missions. Leadership is not about maximizing this year’s partner profits or pursuing growth for the sake of growth to create illusory empires over which a dictator can preside. It requires a willingness to create incentive structures that encourage long-term institutional stability.

Toward that end, lofty aspirations are easier to state than to achieve. But here are a few governing principles:

— Client service should be central to everything a law firm does.

— Partner cooperation should trump partner competition.

— Clients and billings should flow seamlessly to the next generation while allowing aging partners to retain a sense of self-worth as firms encourage them to prepare for their “second acts,” whatever they may be.

— The culture of a firm should encourage partners to sacrifice some short-term financial self-interest in the effort to leave the firm better than they found it — just as their mentors did for most of them.

Become the Problem

The most creative leaders understand that all of this means thinking outside the conventional billable hour box that remains central to the short-term growth and profit-maximizing mindset. In that respect, the contrast between the absence of true leadership and clients’ desires is striking.

Since 2009, Altman Weil has done an annual survey of corporate chief legal officers, too. The survey asks the CLOs: “How serious are law firms about changing their legal service delivery model to provide greater value to clients?”

The responses are on a scale of one (not at all serious) to ten (doing everything they can), Every year since the survey began, the median score has been three. Three out of ten. Stated differently, as far as clients are concerned, their outside lawyers have little interest in responding to demands for change.

Likewise, LexisNexis/Counsel Link’s most recent semi-annual report analyzing six key metrics confirms the impact of short-termism:

— Clients want alternative fee arrangements. AFAs account for only seven percent of all billings.

— Clients want relief from high hourly rates. For the trailing 12-month period ending on June 30, 2015, big firms of more than 750 attorneys had a median partner billing rate of $711 an hour — up 6 percent from the period ending on December 31, 2014. (For firms of 501-750 lawyers the median hourly rate during the same period increased by only $5 an hour.)

The Future Is Here

As big firm leaders drag their feet, clients aren’t waiting for them. They have figured out that the biggest of big law premiums isn’t always worth it. An October 2013 study of $10 billion in client fee invoices by LexisNexis/Counsel Link concluded the “large enough” firms of 201-500 lawyers are eating into the market share of firms with more than 750 lawyers.

From 2010 to 2013, the biggest firms saw their market share drop from 26 percent to 22 percent. Meanwhile, the market share of the “large enough” firms increased from 18 to 22 percent. For high-fee matters totaling $1 million or more, the shift was even more dramatic: “large enough” firms increased their market share from 22 to 41 percent.

Anyone believing that most big law firm leaders are long-term thinkers preparing their firms for a challenging future is ignoring the actual behavior of those leaders. Most of them are focused on getting rich today. That’s not a strategy for success tomorrow.

MIZZOU FOOTBALL LESSONS

The legal profession could learn something from the events culminating in Tim Wolfe’s resignation as president of the University of Missouri system. So could all of higher education. But those lessons have little to do with race.

Who is Tim Wolfe?

He’s a businessman.

Wolfe’s family moved to the Columbia, Missouri area when he was in fourth grade. For 30 years, his father was a communications professor at the University of Missouri. Wolfe quarterbacked his high school football team to a state championship. He earned an undergraduate degree from MU in personnel management.

After college, Wolfe became a sales rep for IBM where he worked his way up to vice president and general manager of its global distribution center. After 20 years at IBM, he became executive vice president of a consulting services company. From there, he moved to software maker Novell Americas, where he was president when another company acquired Novell and left him unemployed.

In December 2011, the University of Missouri’s board of curators announced Wolfe’s selection as its 23rd president. His base salary was $459,000.

What Happened? For a While, Not Much

As recently as August 2014, the board of curators thought that Wolfe’s performance had earned him a contract extension from February 2015 through June 2018. A year later, his troubles began.

On September 12, the president of the Missouri Student Association posted a Facebook item about vile racist slurs he’d received. By October 10, a group calling itself Concerned Student 1950 (the year Mizzou first admitted black students) staged a homecoming parade protest. On October 20, the group issued eight demands, including the ouster of Wolfe.

Exactly what he did to make such a shortlist is far from clear. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal put some blame on his proposal to close the university’s respected press as a cost saving measure. But he withdrew that proposal after hearing from objectors.

The Times and the Journal also implied that Wolfe was responsible for canceling health insurance for graduate students. But that situation is more complicated. As the graduate studies office announced in August, new Affordable Care Act requirements prevented the university from paying those premiums. Instead, the university would provide a one-time stipend to all qualified graduate students. Under the ACA, the university said, it was unable to link the stipend to health insurance or to ask whether recipients needed or planned to purchase a policy. Failure to implement the new IRS regulations would have resulted in fines of $100 per student.

Was It Race?

After a swastika with feces appeared in a campus bathroom on October 24, Concerned Student 1950 met with Wolfe personally. Three days later, one of the protest organizers announced a hunger strike. On November 6, a student posted a video in which protesters asked Wolfe to define systematic oppression.

“I’ll give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” he said. “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.”

“Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe?” shouted a protester. “Did you just blame black students?”

Wolfe’s insensitive comments were unfortunate. But they’re not the sort of thing that costs a university president his job. And they didn’t cost Wolfe his — until the football team weighed in.

And Then…

On Saturday, November 7, the entire Mizzou football team — 84 scholarship players and their coaches — proclaimed unanimous solidarity with the protest movement. Within 36 hours, Wolfe resigned.

Like many universities, the University of Missouri created the monster that can devour it. College football is big business, especially in the Southeastern Conference. The average SEC head football coach makes almost $4 million a year. President Wolfe’s base salary was about one-tenth of what the school pays coach Gary Pinkel. Throughout the country, college football generates enormous revenues that pay for coaches, athletic scholarships, and stunning athletic facilities.

Whether and to what extent this circle of riches makes its way back to support a school’s principal mission — educating young people — isn’t clear. Earlier this year during its dispute over whether college players could unionize, Northwestern University claimed that, considered as a whole with other sports that football subsidized, the athletic programs were money-losers for the school. On November 7, Northwestern broke ground on a new $260 million athletic facility.

Pocketbook Threat

The tipping point for Wolfe came when the football team — with a mediocre record of four wins and five losses — said it would boycott its November 14 game against BYU. That game alone would have cost the university $1 million. But the potential impact could be far greater if the team fails to win the two more games needed to qualify for a postseason bowl appearance.

Now we come to the lesson for big law firms. The internal gap between the highest and lowest paid equity partners at most firms is enormous and growing. Likewise, the frenzy to recruit lateral rainmakers continues unabated. Those trends have produced a “don’t-get-me-angry” group that is analogous to what many college football teams have become. A handful of individuals exerts disproportionate influence over an entire institution, but the resulting culture affects everyone.

Football Cognitive Dissonance

Society is conflicted about football. Every weekend, millions of people watch college games. I’m among them. Our behavior creates market demand that gives college football an outsized influence over higher education.

At the same time, we’ve become uncomfortable with some of the adverse individual consequences that the market doesn’t consider, such as lifelong brain damage from concussions. Economists call these externalities. It’s one reason that half of Americans don’t want their sons playing tackle football. When things get personal, they’re somehow different.

Big Law Cognitive Dissonance

Likewise, most law firm managing partners admit that recruiting high-powered rainmakers doesn’t usually improve their firms’ financial performance. Independent studies confirm that lateral hiring is dubious strategy. Yet the lateral frenzy continues as newly hired partners parachute into the top ranks of many firms.

Unfortunately, short-run disappointment with the financial impact of a lateral hire is the least of the problems associated with aggressive inorganic growth. The strategy can destroy a firm’s cohesion, impair its sense of professional mission, and increase its vulnerability to financial shocks. In the resulting environment, everyone in the institution suffers.

Living through the financial and cultural consequences of lateral hiring failures could have prompted law firm leaders to rethink their strategic plans. But that hasn’t happened. After all, such a reversal would require leaders to overcome their confirmation bias, transcend hubris, and admit mistakes. That’s less likely than a major university relegating football to its proper place in the institution’s broader educational mission.

By the way, Mizzou may also offer a lesson to some law school deans: make friends with your university’s football coach.

BASEBALL AND BIG LAW

Watching the Chicago Cubs make their way into the National League Championship Series causes me to reflect on one of my favorite themes: baseball as a metaphor for life. It might have something to tell big law firms, too.

I focus on the Chicago Cubs because I’ve watched the team since the season began. Before giving up on them several years ago, I was a fan for three decades that started with the birth of our first child in 1981. He and his siblings qualify as long-suffering lifetime fans. For many years, we had season tickets.

As an adult, I knew little of Cubs’ fan angst because I grew up in Minneapolis — an American League city where some of the best entertainment was watching then-Twins coach Billy Martin get thrown out of games during the team’s 1965 pennant run. (Famously, Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in game one of that World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.  He then won games five and seven — pitching complete game shutouts in both.)

After years of Cubs’ frustration, what’s working now? That’s where parallels to big law emerge.

Talent

The Cubs have stars on their roster. Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant have become household names in Chicago and beyond. As in a law firm, talent is a necessary condition for success.

But talent alone is not sufficient. Just ask former partners of Dewey & LeBoeuf — a firm loaded with talent.

Depth

When shortstop Addison Russell went down with a pulled hamstring in game three of the National League Division Series, Cubs fans gasped. But the team didn’t fold. Javier Baez was ready to take the field. In game four of the series, Baez hit a three-run homer that turned the tide in the Cubs’ favor.

At shortstop — and every other position — the Cubs have a backup plan. According to Altman Weil’s 2015 Report, “Law Firms In Transition,” only 31 percent of law firms have a formal succession planning process in place.

Most big law firm partners resist transition because it vests younger attorneys with the power to claim a share of client billings. Likewise, most firms offer no financial incentive for partners to mentor young attorneys. There’s no way to bill that time.

Attitude

From July through September and into early October, Cubs ace pitcher Jake Arrieta seemed unstoppable. Then he gave up four runs in the fist five innings of League Division Series game 3. Relief pitchers stepped in and Cubs hitters stepped up. The Cubs won 8-6.

In post-game interviews following game four, the latest Cubs phenomenon, Kyle Schwarber, echoed what many other players said: “We pick each other up. When one guys is off, others step up. We have each other’s back.”

At many big firms, some partners seem determined to put sharp objects into the backs of their fellow partners.

Leadership

Cubs manager Joe Maddon doesn’t offer brash, self-aggrandizing remarks. He leads by quiet example. He expects players to do their best on the field, but he encourages balance in their lives. To emphasize his point, sometimes he cancels batting practice, especially if the team is in a hitting slump. He wants them thinking about other things.

Sometimes, he locks the clubhouse door until two or three hours before game time. Don’t show up early; you won’t have anything to do when you get there. Maddon wants them to develop lives beyond the field. Imagine a big law partner telling associates to go home at five or six o’clock — and not bill any time after they get there.

Maddon models behavior aimed at achieving balance. Before the season began, he took a dozen players to visit children at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Throughout the year, Anthony Rizzo, a cancer survivor, made similar trips to hospitals. So did Chris Coghlan and many of his teammates.

Culture

Maddon loves the game. He wants everyone around him to love it, too. He keeps the team loose. Sometimes he manages the team like a little league coach, moving players into different positions. Schwarber was behind the plate one game and in the outfield the next; Coghlan played five different positions in a single game; Bryant played four.

Humor is one of Maddon’s principal weapons. At the end of September, he brought exotic animals into the clubhouse. During the pregame media session, he talked to a flamingo named Warren.

“When is the last time you heard about 20-somethings who couldn’t wait to get to work?” Cubs President Theo Epstein asked one interviewer after the game that propelled the Cubs into the League Championship Series.

Perhaps most importantly, Maddon wants players to remember why they chose baseball as a career. Then they’ll realize that they should be enjoying themselves. Many lawyers could benefit from similar introspection.

On a personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed practicing law. But I’m sure glad that I spent time coaching all of my kids’ baseball and softball teams — more than 25 in all. Good luck to any young big law attorney who tries to replicate that feat today. Make the effort. It’s worth it.

DEWEY: 10 LESSONS LOST

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National news organizations began working on stories about the verdicts in the Dewey & LeBoeuf case long before the jury’s deliberations ended.

“What are the lessons?” several reporters asked me.

My initial inclination was to state the obvious: Until the jury renders its decision, who can say? But that would be an unfortunately limited way of viewing the tragedy that befell a once noble law firm. In fact, the trial obscured the most important lessons to be learned from the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Lesson #1: You Are What You Eat

During the twelve months prior to the firms’ October 2007 merger, Dewey Ballantine hired 30 lateral partners; LeBoeuf Lamb hired 19. The combined firm continued that trend as Dewey & LeBoeuf became one of the top 10 firms in lateral recruiting. By 2011, 50 percent of the firm’s partners were post-2005 laterals into Dewey & LeBoeuf or its predecessors.

A partnership of relative strangers is not well-positioned to withstand adversity.

Lesson #2: Mind the Gap

To accomplish aggressive lateral hiring often means overpaying for talent and offering multi-year compensation promises. By 2012, Dewey & LeBoeuf’s ratio of highest-to-lowest paid equity partners was 20-to-1.

A lopsided, eat-what-you-kill partnership of haves and have-nots has difficulty adhering to a common mission.

Lesson #3: Not All Partners Are Partners

One corollary to a vast income gap within the equity ranks is the resulting partnership-within-a-partnership. As those at the top focus on the short-term interests of a select few, the long-run health of the institution suffers.

A partnership within a partnership can be a dangerous management structure.

Lesson #4: The Perils of Confirmation Bias

Firm leaders and their fellow partners are vulnerable to the same psychological tendencies that afflict us all. When former Dewey chairman Steven H. Davis held fast to his perennial view that better times were just around the corner, fellow partners wanted to believe him.

Magical thinking is not a business strategy.

Lesson #5: Short-termism Can Be Lethal

Short-term thinking dominates our society, even for people who view themselves as long-term strategists. At Dewey, the need to maximize current year partner profits and distribute cash to some partners overwhelmed any long-term vision that Davis sought to pursue.

In the not-so-long run, a firm can die.

Lesson #6: Behavior Follows Incentive Structures

Most firms hire lateral partners because they will add clients and billings. To prove their worth, laterals build client silos to prevent others from developing relationships with “their clients.” Similarly, there’s no incentive for partners in “eat-what-you-kill” firms to mentor young attorneys or facilitate the smooth intergenerational transition of client relationships.

Over time, the whole can become far less than the sum of its parts.

Lesson #7: Disaster Is Closer Than You Think

When the central feature of a firm’s culture is ever-increasing partner profits, even small dips become magnified. Incomes that are staggering to ordinary workers become insufficient to keep restless partners from finding a new place to work.

Death spirals accelerate.

Lesson #8: Underlings Beware

On cross-examination, some of the prosecution’s witnesses testified that at the time they made various accounting adjustments to Dewey’s books, they didn’t think they’d done anything wrong. But now they are parties to plea agreements that could produce prison time.

Deciding that something isn’t wrong is not always the same as determining that it’s right.

Lesson #9: Greed Governs

Who among the Dewey partners received the $150 million in bond proceeds from the firm’s 2010 bond offering? I posed that question a year ago and we still don’t know the answer. During the first five months of 2012 — as the firm was in its death throes — a small group of 25 partners received $21 million while the firm drew down its bank credit lines. Who masterminded that strategy?

In a November 2012 filing with the Dewey bankruptcy court, Steven Davis explained why Dewey collapsed: “While ‘greed’ is a theme…, the litigation that eventually ensues will address the question of whose greed.” (Docket #654) He was referring to some of his former partners who ignored the role that fortuity had played in creating their personal wealth.

Hubris is a powerfully destructive force.

Lesson #10: Superficial Differences Don’t Change Outcomes

For the three years that Dewey has been in the news, many big law firm leaders have been performing the task at which attorneys excel: distinguishing adverse precedent. In great detail, they explain all of the ways that their firms are nothing like Dewey. But they fail to consider the more significant ways in which their firms are similar.

A walk past the graveyard is easier when you whistle. Louder is better. Extremely loud and running is best.

LABOR DAY

Labor Day marks the end of summer. It’s also a time to reflect on our relationship with work. Lawyers should do that more often. In that regard, some big law leaders will find false comfort in their 2015 Am Law Midlevel Associates Survey ranking.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, “Rethinking Work,” Swarthmore College Professor Barry Schwartz suggests that the long-held belief that people “work to live” dates to Adam Smith’s 1776 statement in “Wealth of Nations”: “It is in the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.”

Schwartz notes that Smith’s idea helped to shape the scientific management movement that created systems to minimize the need for skill and judgment. As a result, workers found their jobs less meaningful. Over generations, Smith’s words became a self-fulfilling prophecy as worker disengagement became pervasive.

“Rather than exploiting a fact about human nature,” Schwartz writes, “[Smith and his descendants] were creating a fact about human nature.”

The result has been a world in which managers structure tasks so that most workers will never satisfy aspirations essential for job satisfaction. Widespread workplace disengagement — afflicting more than two-thirds of all workers, according to the most recent Gallup poll — has become an accepted fact of life.

Lawyers Take Note

Schwartz’s observations start with those performing menial tasks: “Maybe you’re a call center employee who wants to help customers solve their problems — but you find out that all that matters is how quickly you terminate each call.”

“Or you’re a teacher who wants to educate kids — but you discover that only their test scores matter,” he continues.

And then he takes us to the legal profession: “Or you’re a corporate lawyer who wants to serve his client with care and professionalism — but you learn that racking up billable hours is all that really counts.”

More than Money

Many Americans — especially lawyers who make decent incomes — have the luxury of thinking beyond how they’ll pay for their next meal. But relative affluence is no excuse to avoid the implications of short-term thinking that has taken the legal profession and other noble pursuits to an unfortunate place.

You might think that short-term profit-maximizing managers would heed the studies demonstrating that worker disengagement has a financial cost. But in most big law firms, that hasn’t happened. There’s a reason: Those at the top of the pyramid make a lot of money on eat-what-you-kill business models. They can’t see beyond their own short-term self-interest — which takes them only to their retirement age.

Maintaining their wealth has also been a straightforward proposition: Pull up the ladder while increasing the income gap within equity partnerships. The doubling of big firm leverage ratios since 1985 means that it’s now twice as difficult to become an equity partner in an Am Law 50 firm. Top-to-bottom compensation spreads within most equity partnerships have exploded from three- or four-to-one in 1990 to more than 10-to-1 today. At some firms, it’s 20-to-1.

What Problem?

Then again, maybe things aren’t so bad after all. The most recent Am Law Survey of mid-level associates reports that overall satisfaction among third- through fifth-level associates is its highest in a decade. But here’s the underlying and problematic truth: Big law associates have adjusted to the new normal.

Thirty-one percent of Am Law Survey respondents said they didn’t know what they’d be doing in five years. Only 14 percent expected to make non-equity partner by then. They see the future and have reconciled themselves to the harsh reality that their firms have no place for them in it.

No one feels sorry for big firm associates earning six-figure incomes, but perhaps someone should. As Professor Schwartz observes, work is about much more than the money. In that respect, he offers suggestions that few large firms will adopt: “giving employees more of a say in how they do their jobs… making sure we offer them opportunities to learn and grow… encouraging them to suggest improvements to the work process and listening to what they say.”

I’ll add one specially applicable to big law firms: Provide meaningful career paths that reward talent and don’t make advancement dependent upon the application of arbitrary short-term metrics, such as leverage ratios, billable hours, and client billings.

What’s the Mission?

Schwartz’s suggestions are a sharp contrast to the way most big law firm partners operate. They exclude their young attorneys from firm decision-making processes (other than recruiting new blood to the ranks of those who will leave within five years of their arrival). Compensation structures reward partners who hoard clients rather than mentor and develop talent for the eventual transition of firm business to the next generation. The behavior of partners and the processes of the firm discourage dissent.

“But most important,” Schwartz concludes, “we need to emphasize the ways in which an employee’s work makes other people’s lives at least a little bit better.”

Compare that to the dominant message that most big law firm leaders convey to their associates and fellow partners: We need to emphasize the ways in which an attorney’s work makes current equity partners wealthier.

Law firm leaders can develop solutions, or they can perpetuate the problem. It all starts from the top.