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.

LEGAL EDUCATION’S STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

The recent New York Times editorial on the law student debt crisis didn’t attack all law schools as “scams.” Rather, along with Law School Transparency’s recent report, it exposed a soft underbelly. But in defending the bad behavior of others, many law professors and deans are doing themselves, their schools, and the profession a great disservice.

It’s a puzzling situation.

In my 30-year career as a litigator at Kirkland & Ellis, I encountered plenty of bad lawyers. I regarded them as embarrassments to the profession. But I didn’t defend their misconduct. Good doctors don’t tolerate bad ones. Gifted teachers have no patience for incompetent colleagues.

The Opposite of Leadership 

Yet the top officers of the Association of American Law Schools sent a letter to the Times editor that began:

“The New York Times fails to make its case on law school debt.”

AALS president Blake Morant (dean of George Washington University Law School), president-elect Kellye Testy (dean of the University of Washington School of Law), and executive director Judith Areen (professor and former dean at Georgetown Law and former AALS president) then explained why all is well.

If those AALS leaders speak for the organization, a lot of law deans should consider leaving it. Rather than serving the best interests of most law schools, publicly defending the bottom-feeders — while saying “no” to every proposal without offering alternatives — undermines credibility and marginalizes otherwise important voices in the reform process.

Using a Poster Child to Make a Point

The Times editorial looked at Florida Coastal, about which certain facts are incontrovertible: low admission standardsdismal first-time bar passage ratesaverage debt approaching $163,000 for the 93 percent of its 2014 graduates with law school loans; poor JD-employment prospects (ten months after graduation, only 35 percent of the school’s 2014 class had full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage).

Florida Coastal isn’t alone among those exploiting law school moral hazard. Without any accountability for the fate of their graduates, many schools feed on non-dischargeable federal loans and the dysfunctional market that has allowed them to survive.

Predictable Outrage from a Inside the Bubble

In June, Scott DeVito became Florida Coastal’s new dean. In an interview about his strategic plans, he said, ““We’re going to have to build more on the parking garage because people will want to go here.”

Predictably, DeVito pushed back hard against the Times’s op-ed. (The newspaper published only a portion of his two-page letter.) He boasts that his school’s first-time bar passage rate was 75 percent in February 2015 — third best of the state’s 11 law schools. That’s true.

But the February session typically includes only 50 to 60 Florida Coastal first-time test-takers annually. DeVito doesn’t mention more recent results from the July 2015 administration, which usually includes 200 to 300 Florida Coastal grads each year: 59.3 percent first-time bar passage rate — eighth out of eleven Florida law schools.

From 2010 to 2014, the school’s July results were:

2010: 78.8% (7th out of 11)

2011: 74.6% (8th)

2012: 75.2% (9th)

2013: 67.4% (10th)

2014: 58.0% (10th)

Who among America’s law school deans is willing to defend that performance record? Their professional organization, the AALS, seems to be.

Facts Get in the Way

DeVito acknowledges that his students’ law school debt is high, but says that’s because, as a for-profit school, “taxpayers are not paying for our students’ education.” That’s a remarkable statement. Florida Coastal and every other law school receives the current system’s inherent government subsidies: non-dischargeable federal student loans, income-based repayment (IBR), and loan forgiveness programs.

Likewise, DeVito asserts that Florida Coastal students “repay their loans,” citing the school’s low default rate. The AALS letter makes the same point: “[M]ost law students…are able to repay and do. The graduate student default rate is 7 percent versus 22 percent for undergrads.”

That argument is disingenuous. The absence of a default doesn’t mean a graduate is repaying the loan or that the day of reckoning for deferred or IBR-forgiven debt will never arrive for students and taxpayers. In fact, it’s inconsistent to assert that law students “repay their loans” while also touting the benefits of IBR and loan forgiveness because students in those programs will never have to repay their loans in full. (And they still won’t be in default!)

Not Defaulting Is Not the Same as Repaying

A recent Department of Education report on colleges highlights the extent to which the absence of default is not equivalent to repayment. There’s no similar compilation for law schools, but an April 2015 Federal Reserve Bank of New York Report on Student Loan Borrowing and Repayment trends generally notes that while only 11% of all educational loan borrowers are in default, “46% of borrowers are current in their loans but are not in repayment. Only 37% of borrowers are current on their loan and actively paying down.” (Emphasis supplied)

As the New York Fed reports, the worsening repayment rate is exacerbating the long-term debt problem for students and taxpayers: “The lower overall repayment rate [compared to earlier years] helps explain the steady growth in aggregate student debt, now at nearly 1.2 trillion dollars.”

Righting Wrongs?

Finally, DeVito takes a noble turn, claiming that it “takes a for-profit entity to right a wrong — in this case the lack of diversity in law schools.”

In “Diversity as a Law School Survival Strategy,” St. Louis University School of Law Professor Aaron N. Taylor explains that marginal schools with the worst graduate employment outcomes have become diversity leaders: “[T]he trend of stratification may only serve to intensify racial and ethnic differences in career paths and trajectories.”

Rather than righting a wrong, it looks more like two wrongs not making a right.

A Few Profiles in Courage

To their credit, Professors William Henderson (Indiana University Maurer School of Law) and David Barnhizer (Cleveland-Marshall College of Law), among others, have embraced the Times’s message that Brian Tamanaha (Washington University School of Law) offered years ago: The current system is broken. Recognize it; accept it; help to lead the quest for meaningful reform.

Likewise, Loyola School of Law (Chicago) Dean David Yellen worries about schools that are “enrolling large numbers of students whose academic credentials suggest that they are likely to struggle gaining admission to the bar… [T]he basic point is an important one that legal education must address.”

The Real Enemy

DeVito’s effort to spin away Florida Coastal’s problems is understandable. Properly implemented, school-specific financial accountability for employment outcomes would put maximum pressure on the weakest law schools. Frankly, the demise of even a single marginal law school would come as a welcome relief. Since the Great Recession we’ve added law schools, not eliminated them.

That’s why most law schools and their mouthpiece, the AALS, should side with Dean Yellen and Professors Henderson, Barnhizer, Tamanaha, and others urging meaningful reform. To test that hypothesis, try this:

The next time someone says that introducing financial accountability for individual schools would be a bad idea, ask why.

The next time someone says that respectable law schools serving their students and the profession should not distance themselves from marginal players that could never survive in a functioning market for legal education, ask why not.

The next time someone says that a united front against change is imperative, ask who the real enemy is.

Then offer a mirror.

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.

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.

THE PERVASIVE AMAZON JUNGLE

Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, hates the recent New York Times article about his company. He says it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know.” Rather, it depicts “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.” He doesn’t think any company adopting such an approach could survive, much less thrive. Anyone working in such a company, he continues, “would be crazy to stay” and he counts himself among those likely departures.

The day after the Times’ article appeared, the front page of the paper carried a seemingly unrelated article, “Work Policies May Be Kinder, But Brutal Competition Isn’t.” It’s not about Amazon; it’s about the top ranks of the legal profession and the corporate world. Both are places where the Times’ version of Amazon’s culture is pervasive — and where such institutions survive and thrive.

The articles have two unstated but common themes: the impact of short-termism on working environments, and how a leader’s view of his company’s culture can diverge from the experience of those outside the leadership circle.

Short-termism: “Rank and Yank”

Bezos is hard-driving and demanding. According to the Times, his 1997 letter to shareholders boasted, “You can work long, hard or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three.”

The Times reports that Amazon weeds out employees on an annual basis: “[T]eam members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year.” Jack Welch pioneered such a “rank and yank” system at General Electric long ago and many companies followed his lead. Likewise, big law firms built associate attrition into their business models.

Theoretically, a “rank and yank” system produces a higher quality workforce. But in recent years, a new generation of business thinkers has challenged that premise. Even GE has abandoned Welch’s brainchild.

As currently applied, the system makes no sense to Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Bob Sutton, who observed, “When you look at the evidence about stack ranking…. The kind of stuff that they were doing [at GE], which was essentially creating a bigger distribution between the haves and the have nots in their workforce, then firing 10% of them, it just amazed me.”

If Amazon uses that system, which focuses on annual short-term evaluations, it’s behind the times, not ahead of the curve.

Haves and Have Nots

Professor Sutton’s comment about creating a bigger gap between the haves and the have nots describes pervasive law firm trends as well. The trend could also explain why Bezos and the Times may both be correct in their contradictory assessments of Amazon’s culture. That’s because any negative cultural consequences of Bezos’ management style probably don’t seem real to him. Bezos is at the top; the view from below is a lot different.

This phenomenon of dramatically divergent perspectives certainly applies to most big law firms. As firms moved from lock-step to eat-what-you-kill partner compensation systems, the gap between those at the top and everyone else exploded. Often, the result has been a small group — a partnership within the partnership — that actually controls the institution.

Those leaders have figured out an easy way to maximize short-term partner profits for themselves: make the road to equity partner twice as difficult than it was for them. As big firm attorney-partner leverage ratios have doubled since 1985, today’s managers are pulling up the ladder on the next generation. It’s no surprise that those leaders view their firms favorably.

Their associates have a decidedly different impression of the work environment. Regular attrition began as a method of quality control. At many firms, it has morphed into something insidious. Leadership’s prime directive now is preserving partner profits, not securing the long-run health of the institution. Short-term leverage calculations — not the quality of a young attorney’s lawyering — govern the determination of whether there is “room” for potential new entrants.

About the Long-Run

Such short-term thinking weakens the institutions that pursue it. As Professor Sutton observes: “We looked at every peer reviewed study we could find, and in every one when there was a bigger difference between the pay at of the people at the bottom and the top there was worse performance.”

That’s understandable. After all, workers behave according to signals that leadership sends down the food chain. Dissent is not a cherished value. Resulting self-censorship means the king and the members of his court hear only what they want to hear. People inside the organization who want to advance become cheerleaders who suppress bad news. Being a team player is the ultimate compliment and the likeliest path to promotion.

One More Thing

Bezos’ letter to his employees about the Times article encourages anyone who knows of any stories “like those reported…to escalate to HR.” He says that he doesn’t recognize the Amazon in the article and “very much hopes you don’t, either.”

One former employee frames Bezos’ unstated conundrum correctly: “How do you possibly convey to your manager the intolerable nature of your working conditions when your manager is the one telling you, point blank, that the impossible hours are simply what’s expected?”

Note to Jeff B: Escalating to HR won’t eliminate embedded cultural attitudes.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong about all of this. On the same day the Times published its piece on the increasingly harsh law firm business model, the Wall Street Journal ran Harvard Law School Professor Mark J. Roe’s op-ed: “The Imaginary Problem of Corporate Short-Termism.”

It’s all imaginary. That should come as a relief to those working inside law firms and businesses that focus myopically on near-term results without regard to the toll it is taking on the young people who comprise our collective future.

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.