ANOTHER COLOSSAL LATERAL MISTAKE

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.

Unpleasant Press

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.

FROM CRAVATH TO CHASE TO CADWALADER

James Woolery is on the move again. We’ve never met, but I’m beginning to feel as if I know the guy.

Woolery first appeared in my June 3, 2010 post about a policy change at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. The Wall Street Journal featured the then-41-year-old Cravath partner in an article about the firm’s plan to allow lawyers in their 30s and 40s to “make a name for themselves” by taking the lead on client deals. Historically, the WSJ reported, Cravath had reserved that role for partners in their 50s.

Six months later, I wrote about Woolery’s departure from Cravath to become co-head of JP Morgan Chase’s North American mergers and acquisitions group. He told the New York Times that he’d developed a business development focus and the Chase opportunity allowed him to build on those skills. So much for practicing law.

Now, two years after joining Chase, Woolery has become the first firmwide deputy chair of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft — a new position apparently created specially for its prominent lateral hire. The Wall Street Journal suggested that the move “is a big personal bet for Mr. Woolery. He is jumping back to the legal industry when it is still struggling with a shortage of work, and he is leaving J.P.Morgan just as mergers are showing new signs of life.”

Regardless of the particular reasons for Woolery’s various moves, the contrast between where he started (Cravath) and where he has now ended (Cadwalader) is remarkable.

Cravath

Whatever else people may think of Cravath, it has an unrivaled reputation for attracting first-rate attorneys. It is also a partnership in the truest sense of that concept: A single tier with a lock-step compensation system that resists an undue emphasis on short-term thinking. The Cravath model promotes longer run values, such as institutional stability.

For example, a lateral hiring frenzy pervades big law, but it’s a relatively rare event at Cravath. The firm focuses on developing talent internally. Its attorneys work hard, run a challenging gauntlet to equity partnership, and reap rich rewards for success.

In May 2007, an American Lawyer interviewer asked Cravath’s then-presiding partner Evan R. Chesler whether partners would stick around if the firm made less money. “I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “I think there is more glue than just money.”

Cadwalader

Cravath’s ethos wouldn’t appeal to attorneys drawn to Cadwalader’s culture. In the mid-1990s, Cadwalader began moving aggressively toward what its new chairman Robert O. Link Jr. called a meritocracy. Others call it “eat-what-you-kill.”

In a February 2007 interview with the American Lawyer, Link expressed an attitude about firm culture that differed dramatically from Chesler’s. “Everyone should wake up in the morning and feel a little vulnerable,” he said.

Link meant it. In 1995, the 268-lawyer Cadwalader firm’s two-tier partnership had 76 equity partners, giving it a leverage ratio of three-and-a-half. By 2005, the firm had nearly doubled in size, but it had only 75 equity partners. Its leverage ratio of seven far exceeded that of all other Am Law 100 firms.

Cadwalader’s asset-backed structured finance practice fueled much of its growth. By 2007, it had 645 lawyers and a stunning leverage ratio of eight-and-a-half. But when the residential housing market cratered and took asset-back structured finance legal work with it, the firm’s fortunes slid badly.

By the end of 2012, Cadwalader had 435 lawyers — down more than 200 from five years earlier. Only 55 of them were equity partners — down 20 from 2007. The good news for the survivors was that by 2012, average equity partner profits had recovered almost completely to their 2007 all-time high of $2.7 million.

Differences that transcend metrics

As Cadwalader became smaller, Cravath maintained average partner profits ranging from $2.5 to $3.2 million, a leverage ratio of approximately four, and moderate growth from 412 to 476 attorneys. Even more to the point, it’s hard to imagine any circumstance short of dissolution that would cause Cravath to shed almost a third of its equity partners, as Cadwalader did from 2007 to 2012.

Back in May 2010, Woolery told the Wall Street Journal, “This is not your grandfather’s Cravath.” It’s not clear what that characterization of his former firm means or if it is correct, but offspring sometimes underestimate the value of a grandfather’s gifts. And offspring sometimes grow up to be grandparents themselves.

FROM KENTUCKY TO CRAVATH TO CHASE

Six months ago, I wrote about a new development at Cravath. (http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/06/03/a-better-alternative-or-a-leap-from-the-frying-pan/) The Wall Street Journal reported that the firm was allowing lawyers in their 30s and 40s to “make a name for themselves” by taking the lead on client deals. Tradition dictated deference to elders in such matters, but Cravath’s lock-step system meant that “older attorneys didn’t mind because the pay they received didn’t get cut” as younger attorneys gained a higher profile. (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703630304575270472434024454.html)

“‘We’re more aggressive than we used to be,’ said 41-year-old Cravath partner James Woolery. ‘This is not your grandfather’s Cravath.’ He said the new approach means more ‘hustling for loose balls’ than in the past.”

When the article appeared, I wondered if Cravath’s experiment would backfire, leading young partners to consolidate clients, billings, and power for personal gain — even, perhaps. chafing at Cravath’s vaunted lock-step system. After all, financially motivated defections now pervade big law.

Alternatively, I speculated that allowing eager lawyers to run with client batons could be a win-win situation. If they remained loyal, the upstarts could grow the entire pie in true partner-like fashion.

I missed the obvious: Some rising young partners at Cravath didn’t want to be lawyers anymore. Woolery himself is now leaving to co-head JP Morgan Chase’s North American mergers and acquisitions. ((http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/01/20/cravaths-woolery-to-join-jpmorgan-as-senior-deal-maker/)

“I’ve had a business management focus, even at Cravath, and this opportunity allows me to expand that,” Wollery told the Times. He said the move would allow him to build on skills that he’d been honing, including business development.

Business development?

He elaborated for the Am Law Daily:

“Woolery points to his experience running Cravath’s business development group as the driving factor behind his decision to move to J.P. Morgan. In the five years that he has led the group, it has evolved from a pitch book operation to a more substantial research and development group consisting of 30 professionals — corporate and litigation attorneys, and analysts.

“‘Doing that work was what led me to wanting to do this job [at J.P. Morgan].'” (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2011/01/woolery.html)

From the University of Kentucky College of Law to Cravath partner, he now moves to a position that doesn’t even require a law degree. Maybe there’s more behind Woolery’s move — more money, more challenges — who knows? But a successful young lawyer in search of more clients found a client in search of him, albeit not for his skills as an attorney.

Big firm lawyers are increasingly assuming non-attorney corporate positions. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/12/lawyers-ceos.html) It’s additional proof of the profession’s transformation to a business: Many large law firms have developed cultures that make them training grounds for corporate leaders. Fully corporatized lawyers don’t even need an MBA to advance. (Woolery doesn’t have one.)

As an educator of students tracking themselves toward the law, I wonder how rising legal stars now leaving the profession altogether would answer these questions:

ON LAW SCHOOL

Why did you attend law school in the first place? Like many others, did you view it as the last bastion of a liberal arts major who couldn’t decide what to do next? Did you regard it as a circuitous path to a corporate career? If so, wouldn’t getting an MBA have been more efficient?

ON THEIR JOBS

Did your legal work and resulting career match your expectations? If not, in what ways — good and bad?

ON LIFE

Have you enjoyed a satisfying career? Have changes in you, your firm, or the profession played a role in your departure from the profession? It’s not just about money, is it?

Most big law attorneys say they’re too busy billing hours to consider these questions at all, much less on a regular basis. It reminds me of Yogi Berra’s response to his wife’s complaints as they got lost while he drove to Cooperstown for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

“I know we’re lost,” he finally admitted, “but we’re making good time!”

Yogi arrived at his desired destination. Too many lawyers never think about theirs — and then wonder why they’re dissatisfied professionally.