I’m the subject of a two-part series currently appearing in Bloomberg BNA. Here are the links:
Lateral hires are risky. Even managing partners responding to the Hildebrandt/Citi 2015 Client Advisory’s confidential survey admitted that only about half of their lateral partners are break-even at best — and the respondents had unrestrained discretion to decide what qualified as “break-even.” As Ed Newberry, co-global managing partner of Squire 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….”
Beyond the financial perils, wise firm leaders understand that some lateral partners can have an even greater destructive impact on a firm’s culture. In late 2014, former American Lawyer editor-in-chief Aric Press interviewed Latham’s outgoing chairman Bob Dell, who was retiring after a remarkably successful 20-year run at the top of his firm. Dell explained that he walked away from prospective lateral partners who were not a good cultural fit because they stumbled over Latham’s way of doing things.
Press wrote: “Culture, in Dell’s view, is not a code word for soft or emotional skills. ‘We think we have a high-performance culture,’ he says. ‘We work at that. That’s not soft.'”
Under the Radar and Under the Rug
Most lateral hiring mistakes attract little public attention. Firm leaders have no reason to highlight their errors in judgment. Fellow partners are reluctant to tell their emperors any unpleasant truth. If, as the adage goes, doctors bury their mistakes and lawyers settle theirs, then managing partners pretend that their mistakes never happened and then challenge anyone to prove them wrong. The resulting silence within most partnerships is deafening.
Every once in a while, a lateral hire becomes such a spectacular failure that even the press takes note. When that happens, the leaders of the affected law firm have nowhere to hide. Which takes us to James Woolery, about whom I first wrote five years ago.
Without mentioning Woolery specifically, I discussed a May 28, 2010 Wall Street Journal article naming him was one of several Cravath, Swaine & Moore partners in their late-30s and early-40s taking “a more pro-active approach, building new relationships and handling much of the work that historically would have been taken on by partners in their 50s.”
“We’re more aggressive than we used to be,” 41-year-old Cravath partner James Woolery told the Journal. “This is not your grandfather’s Cravath.”
A Serial Lateral
Six months later, it wasn’t Woolery’s Cravath, either. He’d already left to co-head J.P. Morgan Chase’s North American mergers and acquisitions group.
In 2013, only two years after accepting the Chase job, Woolery moved again. With much fanfare, he negotiated a three-year deal guaranteeing him at least eight million dollars annually to join Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. How was the cultural fit? The firm’s chairman, Chris White, described him as “the epitome of the Cadwalader lawyer” who deserved the lucrative pay package that made him the firm’s highest paid partner. A new title created especially for Woolery — deputy chairman — also made clear that he was White’s heir apparent.
To no one’s surprise, in 2014 Cadwalader announced that Woolery would take over as chairman in early 2015. As he prepared to assume the reins of leadership, the firm took a dramatic slide. The current issue of The American Lawyer reports that Cadwalader posted the worst 2014 financial results of any New York firm. Woolery’s guarantee deal looked pretty good as his firm’s average partner profits dropped by more than 15 percent. The firm’s profit margin — 26 percent — placed it 87th among Am Law 100 firms.
On January 19, 2015, the firm’s managing partner, Patrick Quinn, convened a conference call with all Cadwalader partners to convey a stunning one-two punch: Woolery would not become chairman, and he was leaving the firm to start a hedge fund. Woolery was not on the call to explain himself.
No law firm wants this kind of attention. No client wants its outside firm to project uncertainty and instability at the top. No one inside the firm wants to hear about someone who has now been “thrust into the role of designated chairman of the firm,” as The American Lawyer described Patrick Quinn.
Woolery is gone, and so is Chris White, the former Cadwalader chairman who sold fellow partners on Woolery and his stunning guaranteed compensation package. White, age 63, left the firm in November to become co-CEO of Phoenix House, the nation’s largest non-profit addiction rehabilitation center.
Meanwhile, newly designated Cadwalader chairman Quinn says that the firm has no plans to change its strategy, including its reliance on lateral partner hiring. Maybe Chris White can use his new job to help Quinn and other managing partners shake their addiction to laterals. Apparently, first-hand experience with failure isn’t enough.
It’s Am Law 100 time. Every year as May 1 approaches, all eyes turn to Big Law’s definitive rankings — The American Lawyer equivalent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. But behind those numbers, what do law firm leaders think about their institutions and fellow partners?
The 2015 Citibank/Hildebrandt Client Advisory contains some interesting answers to that question. Media summaries of those annual survey results tend to focus on macro trends and numbers. Will demand for legal services increase in the coming months? Are billable hours up? Will equity partner profits continue to rise? Will clients accept hourly rate increases? Or will client discounts reduce realizations?
Those are important topics, but some of the survey’s best nuggets deserve more attention than they get. So as big law firm partners everywhere pore over the annual Am Law 100 numbers, here are five buried treasures from this year’s Citibank/Hildebrandt Client Advisory that will get lost in the obsession over Am Law’s short-term growth and profits metrics. They may reveal more about the state of Big Law than any ranking system can.
Chickens Come Home To Roost
1. “While excess capacity remains an issue, we are hearing from a good number of firms that mid-level associates are in short supply.”
My comment: After 2009, most firms reduced dramatically summer programs and new associate hiring to preserve short-term equity partner profits. That was a shortsighted failure to invest in the future, and it’s still pervasive. See #4 and #5 below.
The Growth Trap
2. “Many [law firm mergers] have tended to be mergers of strong firms with weaker firms, or mergers of firms that are pursuing growth for growth’s sake. On this latter trend, it is our view that these mergers are generally ill-conceived. In our experience, combining separate firm revenues does not necessarily translate into better profit results and long-term success.”
My comment: Regardless of who says it (or how often), many managing partners just don’t believe it.
The Lateral Hiring Ruse
3. “For all the popularity of growth through laterals, the success rate of a firm’s lateral strategy can be quite low. For the past few years, we have asked leaders of large firms to quantify the rate of success of the laterals they hired over the past five years. Each year, the proportion of laterals who they would describe as being above ‘break even’, by their own definition, has fallen. In 2014, the number was just 54 percent of laterals who had joined their firms during 2009-2013.” [Emphasis added]
My comment: Think about that one. The survey allows managing partners to use their own personal, subjective, and undisclosed definition of “success.” Even with that unrestricted discretion to make themselves look good, firm leaders still admit that almost half of their lateral hiring decisions over the past five years have been failures — and that they’re track record has been getting worse! That’s stunning.
Pulling Up The Ladder
4. “We are now seeing [permanent non-partner track associates and other lower cost lawyers] appear among some of the most elite firms. When we ask these firms whether they are concerned that expanding their lawyer base beyond partner-track associates will hurt their brand, their response is simply that this is what their clients, and the market in general demands.”
My comment: At best such managing partner responses are disingenuous; at worst they are lies. Clients aren’t demanding non-partner track attorneys; they’re demanding more value from their outside lawyers. Thoughtful clients understand the importance of motivating the next generation’s best and brightest lawyers with meaningful long-term career opportunities.
Permanent dead-end tracks undermine that objective. So does the continuing trend in many firms to increase overall attorney headcount while keeping the total number of equity partners flat or declining. But rather than accept responsibility for the underlying greed that continues to propel equity partner profits higher, law firm leaders try to blame clients and “the market.” For the truth, they should consult a mirror.
The Real Problem
5. “Leaders of successful firms also talk about getting their partners to adopt a more long-term, ‘investment’ mindset. In an industry where the profits are typically paid out in a short time to partners, rather than being retained for longer term investment, this can be a challenge.”
My comment: Thinking beyond current year profits is the challenge facing the leadership of every big firm. Succeeding at that mission is also the key assumption underlying the Client Advisory’s optimistic conclusion:
“It is clear to us that law firms have the capacity and the talent to adapt to the needs of their clients, and meet the challenges of the future — contrary to those who continually forecast their death.”
I’m not among those forecasting the death of all big firms. In fact, I don’t know anyone who is. That would be silly. But as in 2013 and 2014, some large firms will fail or disappear into “survival mergers.” As that happens, everyone will see that having what the Client Advisory describes as “the capacity and talent to adapt” to the profession’s dramatic transformation is not the same as actually adapting. The difference will separate the winners from the losers.
[NOTE: Beginning April 16 and continuing through April 20, Amazon is running a promotion for my novel, The Partnership. During that period, you can get the Kindle version as a FREE DOWNLOAD. Recently, I completed negotiations to develop a film version of the book.]
Dentons must have a large support staff whose only job is to introduce the firm’s new partners to each other. Three months ago, it joined with the massive China-based Dacheng to create the world’s largest law firm — or whatever it is. Now McKenna Long & Aldridge’s partners will merge their 420 lawyers into the Dentons North American verein.
Well, not all 420 lawyers because, as McKenna Long’s chairman Jeffrey Haidet told the Daily Report, “There will probably be some fallout from the legacy partnership. It’s unfortunate….”
There’s nothing unfortunate about the deal for Haidet, whose personal “fallout” will make him co-CEO in Dentons-US.
Eliminating The Opposition
Haidet tried to make this deal in 2013, but according to the Daily Report, it collapsed when a few key McKenna Long partners balked over concerns about losing the McKenna identity and name. The currently prevailing big law firm business model doesn’t value such dissent. So it’s no surprise that during 2014 McKenna Long lost a greater percentage of its partners (22.3 percent) than any other Am Law 200 firm.
Haidet told the American Lawyer that some of his firm’s record-setting 59 departures last year “were of partners who disagreed with the firm’s growth strategy.” That’s not surprising either, since that strategy apparently involved extinguishing the firm itself. A venerable Atlanta institution that is also highly regarded for its Washington, DC government contracts and policy work will soon disappear.
If and when McKenna Long releases its financial results for 2014, the underlying motivations behind Haidet’s renewed discussions with Dentons may become clearer. Perhaps the firm’s financial performance limited its options. But this much is obvious: Compared with McKenna Long’s earlier focus that gave it a clear identity, the partners who survive this transaction will join an organization that has an open-ended goal, namely, getting bigger.
Dentons’ global CEO Elliott Portnoy told the Wall Street Journal, “There is no logical end.” That echoed global chair Joseph Andrew’s remarks in an earlier article: “We compete with everyone. We compete with the largest law firms in the world and the smallest law firms.” Combine those two thoughts from the top of Dentons’ leadership team and it sounds like an effort to be all things to any and all potential clients.
“We’re going to be driven by our strategy,” Portnoy told the Journal. Even so, it looks like the strategy is growth for the sake of growth — a dangerous path. But as Andrew put it, they’re out to prove everybody else wrong about the perils of that approach: “What we’re trying to do is to take these myths that have gathered in the legal profession and say (they’re) not true.”
The Evidence Speaks
Andrew and Portnoy are fighting more than “myths.” Last year, the 2014 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report on the Legal Profession devoted most of its annual report to the folly of growth alone as a business strategy. It begins by debunking the argument that increased size means economies of scale and cost savings:
“[O]nce a firm achieves a certain size, diseconomies of scale can actually set in. Large firms with multiple offices — particularly ones in multiple countries — are much more difficult to manage than smaller firms. They require a much higher investment of resources to achieve uniformity in quality and service delivery and to meet the expectations of clients for efficiency, predictability, and cost effectiveness. They also face unique challenges in maintaining collegial and collaborative cultures, particularly in the face of rapid growth resulting from mergers or large-scale lateral acquisitions.”
In addition to the quality and cultural issues discussed in my February post on the Dacheng deal, Dentons’ expanding administrative structure prompts this question: How many CEOs can a law firm have at one time? In addition to global CEO Portnoy and global chairman Andrew, Haidet will join four other current Dentons CEOs. Additional senior management will result from implementing the Dacheng deal.
Turning to the key question, the Georgetown Report notes, “[G]rowth for growth’s sake is not a viable strategy in today’s legal market. The notion that clients will come if only a firm builds a large enough platform or that, despite obvious trends toward the disaggregation of legal services, clients will somehow be attracted to a ‘one-stop shopping’ solution is not likely a formula for success.”
Compare that analysis to the Wall Street Journal’s summary of Dentons’ strategic plan: “[T]he firm hopes to become a one-stop shop for big corporations and small businesses alike.”
The Georgetown Report’s most intriguing suggestion is that a law firm’s pursuit of indiscriminate growth can mask a failure of true leadership:
“Strategy should drive growth and not the other way around. In our view, much of the growth that has characterized the legal market in recent years fails to conform to this simple rule and frankly masks a bigger problem — the continuing failure of most firms to focus on strategic issues that are more important for their long-term success than the number of lawyers or offices they may have.”
As a way for law firm leaders to convince their partners that they have a strategic vision, the Report continues, growth is “a more politically palatable than a message that we need to fundamentally change the way we do our work.”
Drawing an analogy to Amity Police Chief Martin Brody’s line (delivered by Roy Scheider) in the movie Jaws, the Georgetown Report concludes, “For most firms…the goal should be not to ‘build a bigger boat’ but rather to build a better one.”
Dentons has already built an enormous boat and, as Portnoy said, “There is no logical end.” Someday soon we’ll know if it’s a better boat, and whether it even floats.
“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.
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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
During the past 25 years, law firm management consulting has grown from cottage industry to big business. In a recent Am Law Daily article, “What Critics of Lateral Hiring Get Wrong,” Brad Hildebrandt, one of its pioneers, provides a comforting message to his constituents:
“Large law firms are weathering the storm of the past five years and continue to transform their businesses to operate with efficiency and agility amid a new set of client expectations.”
Hildebrandt v. Altman Weil
Hildebrandt correctly notes that painting all large firms with a single brush is a mistake. But his general description of most firms today is at odds with the results of Altman Weil’s recent survey, “2014: Law Firms in Transition.” The summary of responses from 803 law firm leaders (including 42 percent of the nation’s largest 350 firms) offers these highlights:
— “The Survey shows clear consensus among law firm leaders on the changing nature of the legal market…. [But] law firms are proceeding without an apparent sense of urgency.”
— “Less than half of the law firms surveyed are responding to the pressures of the current market by significantly changing elements of their traditional business model.”
— “Most firms are not making current investments in a future they acknowledge will be different – and different in seemingly predictable ways.”
— “Only 5.3 percent of firms are routinely looking farther than five years out in their planning.”
Altman Weil’s conclusions comport with its October 2013 Chief Legal Officer Survey. When clients rated outside law firms’ seriousness about changing legal service delivery models to provide greater value, the median score was three out of ten — for the fifth straight year.
Hildebrandt v. Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor and Henderson
So what are most big firms doing? Growth through aggressive lateral hiring. Hildebrandt responds to “academics, journalists, former practicing attorneys, and countless legal bloggers” who question that strategy. Count me among them.
Acquiring a well-vetted lateral partner to fill a specific strategic need is wise. But trouble arises when laterals become little more than portable books of business whose principal purpose is to enhance an acquiring firm’s top line revenues.
“Growth for growth’s sake is not a viable strategy in today’s market,” the 2014 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report on the State of the Legal Market observes. Nevertheless, the report notes, most firms are pursuing exactly that approach: “[Growth] masks a bigger problem — the continuing failure of most firms to focus on strategic issues that are more important….”
Professor William Henderson has done extensive empirical work on this subject. “Is Reliance on Lateral Hiring Destabilizing Law Firms?” concludes: “[T]he data is telling us that for most law firms there is no statistically significant relationship between more lateral partner hiring and higher profits.”
Hildebrandt v. Citi/Hildebrandt
Big law partners acknowledge the truth behind Henderson’s data. According to the 2014 Citi/Hildebrandt Client Advisory, only 57 percent of law firm leaders describe their lateral recruits during 2008-2012 as successful, down from 60 percent last year. If those responsible for their firms’ aggressive lateral hiring strategies acknowledge an almost 50 percent failure rate, imagine how much worse the reality must be. Nevertheless, the lateral hiring frenzy continues, often to the detriment of institutional morale and firm culture.
With respect to culture and morale, Hildebrandt rejects the claim that lateral partner hiring crowds out homegrown associate talent. But the 2013 Citi/Hildebrandt Client Advisory suggests that it does: Comparing “the percentages of new equity partners attributable to lateral hires vs. internal promotions in 2007…with percentages in 2011 reveals a marked shift in favor of laterals” — a 21 percent decrease in associate promotions versus a 10 percent increase in lateral partner additions.
Nevertheless, Hildebrandt offers this assessment:
“In the six years prior to the recession, many firms admitted far too many partners—some into equity partnership, many into income partnership. A driving factor in the number of partners in the lateral marketplace is that firms are coming to grips with the mistakes of the past. Lax admissions standards have been a far greater issue than mistakes made on laterals.”
When I read that passage, it seemed familiar. In fact, Chapter 5 of my latest book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis, opens with this quotation:
“The real problem of the 1980s was the lax admission standards of associates of all firms to partnerships. The way to fix that now is to make it harder to become a partner. The associate track is longer and more difficult.”
Those were Brad Hildebrandt’s words in September 1996. (“The NLJ 250 Annual Survey of the Nation’s Largest Law Firms: A Special Supplement — More Lawyers Than Ever In 250 Largest Firms,” National Law Journal)
“Fool Me Once, Shame On You…”
Evidently, most firms followed Hildebrandt’s advice in the 1990s because the overall leverage ratio in big law firms has doubled since then. His recent suggestion that “lax admission standards” caused firms to make “far too many” equity partners during the six years prior to the Great Recession of 2008-2009 is particularly puzzling. In the May 2008 issue of American Lawyer, Aric Press noted that during the “Law Firm Golden Age” from 2003 to 2007, “Partners reaped the benefits of hard work — and of pulling up the ladder behind them. Stoking these gains has been a dramatic slowdown in the naming of new equity partners.”
Meanwhile, the swelling ranks of income partners reflect a different strategy: using the non-equity partner tier as a profit center. The strategy is misguided, but pursuing it has been intentional, not a “mistake.” (Take a look at the American Lawyer article, “Crazy Like a Fox,” by Edwin Reeser and Patrick McKenna.)
Even so, Hildebrandt’s words reassure firms that are recruiting laterals for all the wrong reasons and/or tightening the equity partner admission screws. Tough love might better serve the profession.